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All persons here depicted, except public figures depicted as public figures in the background, are figments of my imagination and any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
The grandfatherly man exclaimed over the pirate costume, though; and his wife dropped two double-packs of peanut butter cups in Billy's bag as well as Batman's. Billy was happy for the moment.
They left together with Batman and his father. She wasn't sure she wanted the company; but she couldn't drag Billy back the way they had come without an obvious argument, and Batman led them off towards the right. Actually, those two seemed to know the neighborhood; they skipped some houses, knocked on basement doors she hadn't noticed.
Billy started walking with Batman, and she with his father. She felt that her initial caution had been ridiculous. This guy might be a serial rapist other nights, but he was too busy being a careful parent this one. "I'm Sarah Jenkins," she said. "That's Billy."
"Knut Gustafson, and this is Rebecca. Rebecca, say hello to Mrs. Jenkins."
"Hello Mrs. Jenkins," Batman said. The pitch of her voice was lower than Billy's.
"Hello Rebecca. Nice to meet you." Should she insist that Billy make polite, too? No. It was too late now. "Like Newt Gingrich?"
"Like King Canute who couldn't command the tides." He spelled it. "The K was once pronounced. I've no idea if the Svensk still do, but it's silent in English."
He was tall, not basketball-freak tall, but well over six feet. When subbing in high schools, she made a game of guessing student activities. If he were in high school, she'd put him in drama club or debate; something about the voice. But there was no hint of high school in his manner. She could tell she was with an adult.
For some reason, he was dressed in rain gear. The forecast had been as clear as the air felt, and she felt comfortable in her short jacket.
When they got to the corner, Billy started to cross. "Hold it!" Knut said. "Okay guys, this is the drill. We are going to wait until this car goes, and then we are going to all cross together. Stay with the adults and watch for cars.... Sorry." The last was directed to her.
"Be my guest," she said. Billy couldn't be reminded of street safety often enough. Still 'King Canute' fit his personality.
They started back the way they had come, calling at a string of 6-flats. Here, he suggested trading off escorting the kids up the stairs.
They did that until the group was across from her home. "That's our place across the street," she said. "I think we'll cross here."
"Good idea," Knut responded. "Okay, let's all stay together and look both ways." After they crossed that way, Batgirl headed down the route Sarah had already covered with Billy . "Sorry," Knut said. Sorry for what, she couldn't see.
"Good night," she called to their retreating backs.
Fred's check had been due November the first, not that she had expected it then. When he picked Billy up on the eighth, he promised that he would mail it the next Tuesday.
She still hadn't received it when he called the night of the twenty-second. "Look," she said, "either I get the support, or Billy stays here. And have it certified."
"It's too late for to have it certified, doll. The bank's closed, and I'm calling from my car anyway. I have the check, and I'll be there in ten minutes."
He gave her the check before he took Billy with him. She filled out the deposit ticket and put it in the mail for her bank that night. There was a Saturday pickup. What if the check bounced? What if it didn't get there on Monday? She carefully balanced her checkbook, then calculated her transit needs until her next check from the Board of Education. She needed to plan the menus for the next two weeks, but she was too tired that night.
Their apartment had only one bedroom. Figuring that Billy needed a little privacy, she'd taken the sofabed in the living room. However, she sometimes needed a little privacy herself. Even though he missed her son when he was away and worried about Fred's unreliability, being alone in the apartment had its restful aspects.
After doing the laundry the next day, she inventoried all her food. Lunch was peanut butter and crackers. She read the supermarket flyer and guessed at the prices of whatever wasn't listed. Billy would spend Thanksgiving with Fred's parents, and they would be willing to pick him up in the unlikely event Fred wasn't available. She planned her lunches and Billy's lunches. Bless the boy; he'd happily eat PBJs every day of the year. She planned their breakfasts and dinners. She could just about make it without Fred's check, but she for-damn-sure couldn't afford a cab back from the store. She'd take her folding cart and go tomorrow.
Making the decision relaxed her tension a little. A nice hot bath relaxed her more. The hand-held shower attachment relaxed her to the point where she could sleep.
She was checking the price of generic crackers on the machine the next day. A man's voice interrupted her calculations. "Aren't you Sarah Jenkins?"
She turned around. "I'm Knut Gustafson," the man said. "Rebecca, greet Mrs. Jenkins. She went trick-or-treating with us."
"Hello Mrs. Jenkins." She was dressed neatly in a good dress. Her father was wearing a suit and tie. They must have come from church.
"How do you do, Rebecca? I wouldn't have recognized you not dressed as Batgirl." Rebecca looked unhappy and started off to the next aisle. "Stocking up for the holiday?" she asked staring at the bulging shopping cart. She hoped she hadn't sounded as jealous as she felt.
"No. Rebecca is spending Thanksgiving with her mother. This is two week's worth. She doesn't trust me to keep her favorite foods in stock without supervision."
"Well, that's a shame; but that gives you Christmas day this year. Or, at least, that's how it works for me."
"Uh-huh," he said. "You know the drill. Is Billy with you this Thanksgiving?"
"No." Not that she would have been able to provide a feast if he were. "But I'll have him a long time at Christmas. We'll go visit his grandparents." At their expense, but that wasn't any of Gustafson's business -- however sympathetic he looked.
"Y'know," he said, "Thanksgiving is no holiday to spend alone. There's a local restaurant that serves a traditional Thanksgiving feast, turkey and everything. Would you be willing to be my guest there?"
That sounded a lot better than the cottage cheese she had planned for that day. "Why, thank you." They kept talking as they finished their shopping.
Knut, who had been quite gentlemanly up till then, somehow ended up in front of her in line. He paid by check and asked for fifty dollars back.
"Do you have wheels?" he asked when she had paid. She gestured towards her own cart, now unfolded. "That's ridiculous. Wait with 'Becca while I get the car, and we'll give you a ride home."
On the ride, they confirmed 2:00 as a time to meet Thursday. He parked his Mazda Protege close to her back stairs and carried some of the groceries upstairs for her. "See you Thursday," he said, and left her there.
On Thursday, with the bank still treating Fred's check as good, she handed Billy off in a nearly friendly manner. Actually, she liked and trusted her former in-laws; Fred was the only irresponsible one in the family. Then she cleaned up the apartment and got herself ready. Why she did the first, she couldn't fathom. She wasn't about to invite this Knut character inside on their first date.
He called about one. "This is Knut Gustafson. Are we still on for two?" She didn't see any problem. "I was going to offer you the option of walking; it isn't far. But I don't trust the weather. I'll be parked in front of your building at two."
At one minute past, he rang her apartment bell. She came down, and he walked her to the car. "I have a confession to make," he said after he had started driving. If it was that they would go Dutch, she was walking home, rain or not. "This place serves a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, but I'm going for the smorgasbord. So you'll have to choose whether to be seasonal on your own."
They had to wait, even though he had made a reservation. She could see diners with both choices, and the smorgasbord looked quite tempting. Besides, she was going to stock up her stomach for as long as possible. Standing there watching others eat led him to ask about Billy's taste in food.
"He's not bad," she told him. "He could live on hamburgers, but he enjoys other foods as well."
"You ever visit the Vietnamese restaurants in the neighborhood?" he asked. "What does he think of those?"
"Chinese. We haven't tried out Vietnamese. He loves sweet-and-sour." When she could afford it. "Likes most of those foods, actually. He'll even eat vegetables in those dishes which he won't eat for me."
"Offer a prayer of thanks. I keep dreading that Rebecca will get into the 'Mickey D's or nothing' phase. Look; she has a table for us."
The waitress brought them menus and asked about drinks. "I'm driving," said Knut, "you?"
"Coffee." She wasn't desperate enough to drink at 2:30 in the afternoon. Indeed, as the dinner progressed, she enjoyed herself thoroughly. He told stories about work and about his daughter, but he listened to her tales more often.
Once he asked about how often she and Billy ate out. She felt guilty about that, and it must have shown. He changed the conversation onto his experience with Rebecca, shifted direction, and ended with a compliment about Billy's Halloween costume.
By this time, the rain outside the windows looked like Niagara falls. Their talk went from Halloween to Thanksgiving, their children to their childhoods, favorite things to most horrible things. He talked about being an accountant; she described what it meant to sub in a different high school every week, sometimes every day. What it meant to have the sub center not call wasn't something she was willing to share. "Do you want any more?" he finally asked. She didn't.
The rain was a mere drizzle when they left. He drove her home and came into the building when she unlocked the door. She still wasn't going to invite him inside her apartment, but she was much more comfortable in his presence. She decided to let him kiss her in the hall.
He stopped on the second-from-the-top stair, however, and took her hands into his. They were nearly on a level. "I really enjoyed this," he said.
"So did I." And indeed she had. He wrapped her right hand in both of his and lifted it to his lips. Formality? No. The kiss went on far too long. Then he stood back up still holding her hand.
They stood looking directly at each other. A nearby stroke of lightning made them both jump. "That's my cue," he said. "Good bye." And he darted down the stairs although the rain was pouring down again.
Needing some exercise to deal with the monstrous dinner she had eaten, she plunged into housework. She was just finishing vacuuming the carpets when the phone rang. It was her mother-in -law.
"Sarah, I really hope you won't mind." What had happened?
"Is Billy still there?" she asked. Friday wasn't a school day, but he would be hell the next day if he got to bed really late.
"No dear. He ought to get there in ten or fifteen minutes. It's just that, really, he's the only one who likes dark meat." Not counting Sarah herself, as Fred's mother obviously didn't. "So I sent him home with a few leftovers. There are a few dollops for you, too. You know, you are welcome at our table."
"Thanks, Mom Jenkins. But it is Fred's time, and I'm not going to cheat." Neither she nor Fred would be able to digest a meal in the other's presence, but she wouldn't tell his mother that.
Billy, who had been clearly been asleep in the car, was barely awake when he got there. She had to strip him on the bed and wake him again to guide him to the toilet. There was no chance for a bath.
The care package contained an entire turkey leg and generous servings of all the dishes -- including slices of white meat. She would have been able to hold her own Thanksgiving feast. After the smorgasbord, the sight was a bit nauseating; but she quite thankfully stacked it into the refrigerator and freezer. This was enough to brighten the next week's meals. Thanks to Fred's mother, the latest crisis had passed.
Friday night, she gave Billy a thorough bath. She ran the tub and let him play there by himself for half an hour, the soaking would loosen all the dirt. She washed his face, the rest that came above the water line, and his legs from his toes to his knees. Then she handed him the soapy washcloth. He did the rest of his torso, his loins, and his thighs.
The bathroom hadn't been intended for showers, but the landlord had installed one. The shower curtains hung on an arrangement of tubing that surrounded the tub; the shower head was connected to the faucet with a long, flexible, cable. She couldn't quite understand how this kept the water inside while it bent, but it did.
The shower head could adjust the strength of the spray without changing the volume of water. It looked sleekly, incongruously, modern lying along the edge of the antiquated tub. There was a holder to keep it where a normal shower head would go, but she never used that.
Now, she used it to rinse off all of Billy and soak his hair. He sat down while she rubbed baby shampoo into the hair and then rinsed it again. She pulled the plug and left him to spray himself up between his legs both front and back. He was nearly old enough for the spray to excite him, or the inadequately rinsed soap to dry on him -- itch -- and excite him, or for an itch caused by not removing the dirt to excite him. She was only certain of one thing, having her wash and rinse his groin was the worst choice of all.
Knut called her on Saturday to thank her again for the pleasure of her company. His next call was on the evening of the 13th, after Billy was in bed. "This is Knut Gustafson. Is this too late to call?"
"It's fine." She'd been doing minor housecleaning. Any break was welcome, and Knut was more welcome than most.
"When we were talking about Billy's toleration for oriental food, I neglected to ask about yours. Do you like Chinese cooking?"
"I love it." She only wished that she could afford restaurant food more often, but she sometimes splurged on takeouts for the two of them.
"How would you and Billy enjoy a meal with me at the Chinese Lantern next weekend?"
"Saturday suppertime?" he asked. "And when would that be? Rebecca will be with her mother then, so I'm flexible."
"Well, we usually eat at six."
"Five-forty-five, then, at your doorway? It won't be much after six when we eat. Would that be convenient?"
"Thank you very much." She did like his company. She also liked the way that he presented her with a plan, but also the option of changing that plan. She'd always preferred take-charge guys; that is what had attracted her to Fred in the first place. Later, it had seemed to her that there was a fine line between taking charge and bullying. Fred seemed to have crossed that line.
"Thank you," he said.
After they'd said good bye, she hugged herself. It was nice to be desired as a woman. Although she had asked for the divorce, it still made her feel like a failure. And the big three-o was looming closer at every birthday. Not that she hadn't met males who desired her, sometimes she could feel the eyes of seniors -- hell, some of the freshman boys -- undressing her. One principal had all but said that she could get steady work in his school if she were more cooperative. The casting couch for Hollywood stardom she could understand, but did he actually expect to get sex in exchange for a few more days of the pittance that the school board paid her?
Anyway, she was used to being desired as a vagina. It was still nice to be desired as a woman. Even if King Canute were only aiming for bed, he courted her instead of propositioning her. And asking Billy was a nice touch. They were a package, and any long-term relationship would have to include him. Which made her suspect that Knut was thinking long-term. Maybe that was what he wanted her to think; maybe he was only thinking of bed.
At that point, the dishwasher stopped. She unloaded it and stacked the dishes in her cupboards. Then she finished cleaning up the living room and pulling out the bed. She tried to save major cleaning for the weekends Billy was away and the school days when she hadn't been called. A seven-year-old's mess, however, can't wait another week. Then, too, their living room was also her bedroom; the twice-daily transformations imposed some neatness.
She filled the tub while she dealt with her other bathroom tasks. Then she sank into it and wallowed. Here the day ended and the night began. She would wash away the dirt, yes; but she would mostly soak out the aches, physical and spiritual, from the day.
She recalled the day until she got to the last phone call. Now that was a joy. Was it really so disastrous if Knut were aiming only for bed? He was attracted to her; he couldn't put this much effort into every woman who came to his attention. And, she had to admit, she was attracted to him. Maybe she was just attracted to sharing a bed. It had been a long time.
The dinner turned out to be a great success, although she had thought that the evening might blow up before it began. Knut opened the back door of his car and said, "Billy, this seat belt is sometimes a problem. Tell me whether you can fasten it." While she held her breath in fear of Billy's demand to ride in front, he climbed in and tried the clasp. "You might have the wrong short end," Knut said. "Try the other." Knut tugged on the belt to make sure that it was locked. "Good man," he said before helping her in.
"Is it okay to order as a group, and share from the serving plates?" Knut asked in the car.
"That's fine," she said. She'd never done it otherwise.
"Any allergies I should know about, or strong aversions?" There were none.
At the restaurant, Knut gave Billy first choice of entrees. Billy chose sweet and sour shrimp. She could have told Knut that. After she and Knut took their choices, Billy had the last. "Not shrimp," said Knut, "not sweet and sour. You can choose anything else." In addition to four entrees, Knut started them off with one bowl of won ton soup to share into separate bowls and three egg rolls. They were never going to finish that.
Knut dished Billy a half bowl of soup. "You can have more if you like it," he said. Billy, who had eaten it before -- Knut could have asked -- liked it. Then he started him on chopsticks. "You can eat with a fork. But half the fun is trying the chopsticks." He split the sticks for Billy and then helped him curl his fingers around them. Then he helped her curl her fingers around her chopsticks, too. His way was a little easier, but that was the least of her reasons for enjoying his touch.
Finally, he told Billy that he didn't have to try the broccoli beef, but that he did have to try everything else. Her feelings must have shown on her face. "Too parental?" he asked. Yes, he was being King Canute again.
"Not really," she said after a second. Knut's laugh was loud enough to draw looks from other tables. Billy wanted to know the joke.
"Well, Billy," he began, "you know that you should always be polite." Billy nodded. "And you know that you should always be honest." He nodded again. "Sometimes it is hard to be both, isn't it?"
"Well, your mother used just the words to be polite... with just the timing to be honest."
Knut kept the conversation flowing, but centered on the two of them. When Billy stepped on one of her responses to tell a story of his own, Knut let him finish, and then offered him some more food. "You were saying?" he said to her.
As she feared, there was no way that they could eat all that they had ordered. The only dish cleaned out was the sweet-and- sour shrimp. Knut excused himself as the meal was winding down. "Anybody have room left for fortune cookies?" he asked when he returned.
"I have room for ice cream," answered Billy. Honest, if not polite.
"You'd rather have ice cream than fortune cookies?"
"Say 'yes, please.'"
"Yes, please," said Billy.
"Sorry," King Canute told her. He'd been so good about the parental bit for the last hour, too. "And what is your wish?" Actually, ice cream was her preference; but she wasn't going to leave Knut alone with his fortune cookie.
"I'll have a fortune cookie, please." They came, and both adults read their fortunes out loud. It was fun.
Knut asked for a doggie bag, with the broccoli beef especially marked. On the way back to the car, she and Knut each held one of Billy's hands and made a game of his "jumping" the puddles. Still, Billy hadn't forgotten where he wanted to sit.
"Why do I have to sit in the back seat?" he asked her when Knut had opened the back door of his car.
"That's a fair question," Knut broke in, "but you have to ask me. You know that there are things you may do at home that you can't do at some of your friends' houses?" Billy nodded slightly. He knew better than to give more than that amount of agreement to somebody who wanted to talk him out of something. "And there are things some of your friends do at home that your mother won't let them do at your house." She wasn't so sure about that, but Knut didn't pause for confirmation. "Well, those are house rules. The people who rent the house make certain rules. There are certain rules for my car. When there are adults present, no kid rides in the front seat. Ask your mother; Rebecca rode in the back seat when we went shopping together."
"That's right," she said. "And it's her family's car."
Billy thought about that for a long time, with Knut standing there patiently. Then he got in. "Buckled up?" asked Knut after he had handed her in and got in his own side.
"You don't ask mommy."
"No, I don't. But I look over to check. I don't start the car until everybody is buckled up." Knut removed the broccoli beef from the bag of leftovers while Billy struggled with the clasp. "I'll help if you ask, but I think you can get it." Finally, Billy did.
When he saw the parking situation, Knut asked whether she minded going in the back door. When they got there and got out, he handed the bag to Billy. "Put that in your refrigerator, would you please," he said. Billy climbed the stairs in a hurry, and she let him in before turning to Knut, who was just behind her.
He put two fingers under her chin, tilting her face upward and to the side. His kiss was firm, and then soft. Her lips parted before his did. Their tongues touched, and something electric shot through her. When the refrigerator clunked shut, they both moved apart guiltily. Then another door slammed.
"Bathroom," she said. He unbuttoned her coat. She feared that her blouse was next and wondered where she would get the will to push him away. Instead he unzipped his own coat and drew her against him, clothed -- but not coated -- fronts pressed together. His mouth was too high for her to reach when he was standing on her level. Instead, she pressed her cheek against his chest. His cheek hugged her hair.
Her nipples were rock-hard, and she wondered whether he could feel them through her bra. She could certainly feel his erection lying against her stomach. He clutched her buttocks to pull her against him, and she pressed forward.
Then the bathroom door crashed into the wall. They pulled apart, but he caught her hands. "Thank God for small bladders," he said. They were laughing rather than hugging when Billy reappeared. "I enjoyed the whole time with you," Knut said.
"So did I," she said. "Thank you."
"Yes," said Billy. "Thank-you-Mr.-Gustafson." It sounded awfully like a rehearsed speech to her, but maybe that was because she could remember the rehearsals.
"You are both quite welcome," Knut said. There was a honking in the alley then, and he left to move his car.
When she finally took time to sort out the refrigerator, there was a full container of sweet-and-sour shrimp. Gratitude won out over annoyance, but it was a close call. She could feed her child, damn it. King Canute need not decide to provide Billy with more of his favorite food. He needn't decide to teach Billy to be generous about the front seat right now, either.
Monday and Tuesday were hell. She was substituting for an American History teacher. (Sarah was only licensed to teach English and Home Ec.) If Mr. Douglas had left her a real lesson plan, she could have followed it; if he had left no lesson plan, she could have taught them something. Indeed, she had already prepared a little unit on the history of American literature for that very contingency.
His lesson plan only outlined the pages to be covered and listed a quiz for Wednesday.
Billy went to her friend Deb's house after school. There was no way Sarah could get home as soon as he did. Sometimes she took more than an hour on public transit. This school was one of those times.
When the phone rang Tuesday night, she was torn. On the one hand, she still had to write a quiz on material she had only read once; she didn't have time for a phone call. On the other hand, any break was welcome by now.
"This is Knut Gustafson," he said.
"As opposed to all the other guys I know named Knut?"
"I'm sorry. At least I don't tell you: 'This is Knut Gustafson from Reuben and Metzger.' Anyway, business phone etiquette is good general phone etiquette. Do you want me to call another time?"
"Is that where you work?" she asked.
"I found a full box of sweet and sour shrimp when I opened the doggie bag. New, untouched."
"Now, that's strange," he said. "Would you believe me if I pled ignorance?"
"Not for a minute. It's nice of you to ask us out, but I can feed my family; I don't want to be treated like a charity case."
"That's rather harsh. My life wouldn't have been worth living if I hadn't brought back a significant amount of broccoli beef. Had you or Billy eaten that all up, I would have got another carton.
"I enjoyed your company," he continued. "I enjoyed Billy's company for that matter. And I enjoy feeding you. I'll restrain myself in the future." Now it sounded like she was depriving him of pleasure. This guy ought to have the Frigidaire franchise for Greenland.
"It's just that I'm a functioning adult and a functioning parent. I need some space which is mine."
"And what is it I did Saturday," he asked, "to invade your space?" Actually he had. The kiss was insistent; he knew what he wanted and he took it. But he had let her know that it was coming. He had placed her face just where he wanted it, but she could always have stepped back.
"Another thing.... Oh Knut, you were a dear. I'm just in a bitchy mood because the school has placed me in an impossible situation." She told him all about it.
"How many paragraphs could they write in an hour?"
"In a period, you mean? They're less than an hour in length. Maybe four, likelier three."
"Give them," he said, "four essay questions. Make the fourth an extra-credit gizmo if they have done the others or pulled a blank on one."
"Do you have any idea what I would get back?"
"Grade them; that would seem to be your responsibility. Give them to Miss Whatsername. Let her use your grades, regrade the tests, or ignore them. You'll have done your duty."
"I'll think about it," she said. She'd dream of handing the answer sheets to Mr. Douglas. On the other hand, grading the short-answer quiz she really would give would be nightmare enough. "Was there anything more?" He had called her, after all.
"There was; but you're busy, and I enjoy talking to you so much that I'm not going to cover two subjects in one phone call. I'll leave my invitation for supper on Christmas Eve until later. Good night, Sarah."
She was laughing when she heard his phone click. Writing the test wasn't so hard as all that. Thirty-eight pages of text, twenty short-answer questions. She read a double-page spread until she spotted a reasonably objective fact, put it down as a question, and turned the page. When she got near the end of the section, she was more familiar with the material; she went back to the middle for the three questions she was missing.
"I'm only giving you a numerical grade," she told the students. "I'm also leaving Mr. Douglas a copy of the test and the distribution of results. I'll tell you what that distribution was in a minute. He can figure out what those numbers are worth."
She let Fred, who was entitled to Billy for the weekend and Tuesday, keep him on Monday as well. Even though she would miss Billy, she was feeling much better when Knut called late Friday evening. "This is your neighborhood sexual deviant," he said. "Please hold on for the heavy breathing." The wheezes which followed sounded like a dying asthmatic.
"I think I prefer the businessman."
"Some people are never satisfied. Anyway, I know that this comes as a complete surprise and that it is only four days away, but... could I persuade you to have supper with me on Christmas Eve?"
"That would be sweet. Of course, it's such a surprise that I'll have to check my date book. Let's see. The twenty-fourth is free."
"But you haven't said yes," he said.
"See, that was easy. You should practice that word more. But on a slightly more serious note...."
"I'm entitled to one phone call to thank you for the previous date and another one to ask you on a future date," he said. She couldn't see where he was entitled, but she was perfectly happy with the situation. "On the other hand, if you wouldn't mind my calling without a purpose, then we could take care of the date- setting earlier."
"That would be fine. I enjoy these calls too. But you are a parent and understand...."
"Tell me when you're busy. I'll understand."
"And Billy and I are going to Milwaukee for almost the entire Christmas vacation. We're visiting my parents."
"Ouch! Well if it has to be, the end of the year is the best time.... Sorry," he added. "You'll be having a fine time, Billy will be with his grandparents for Christmas." They'd be traveling on Christmas, but they'd be there for the evening. "And all I thought about was myself."
"That's okay." It was kind of nice to think he would miss her.
"Another thing," he said. There was a long pause.
"That's for you to answer. In our last conversation, you started to say that there was another thing. Then you stopped."
"That was just my anger showing." She was embarrassed that she had said it, well... almost said it.
"We've covered that, Sarah. You were pissed at the world. Under those circumstances, the annoying thing which I had done was terribly annoying. But I don't want to annoy you slightly.
"That doesn't sound right. I don't want to annoy you to any degree, however slight. Tell me. Maybe I can do something about it; maybe I can't. But you are doing me no favor by hiding your reaction."
"Well,..." she started. "Well, it's just that what Billy deserves is a couple of parents who have the same rules for him, who agree beforehand. Instead, he has two parents who enforce different sets of rules. Fred is supposed to support my rules, I think...."
"But there is no way for you to make him. I'm in sort of that situation, myself. It's probably inevitable in our situation."
"Even when the parents are still married, the two sets of rules aren't exactly identical," she said. "But what Billy doesn't need. What Billy needs not to have...."
"Is a third set of rules," he said. The man was so perceptive after you pounded him on the head with a two-by-four. "I can see that. I'll try to follow your lead."
"I'm perfectly willing to sit in the back seat of the car. It costs you nothing. Unlike the sweet and sour shrimp."
"Well, that is not correct. See my side for a second. Rebecca sits in the back seat when we have guests. She sits back there because adults need the legroom more than kids do. Maybe I should have told her that hosts give the best seat to guests. But what I did tell her was that adults need more legroom. Like I told Billy, its a rule of that car. So is seat belts."
"Seat belts are completely all right," she said. "Well, you said that you might not do anything about it."
"And I'll try on the other rules. It's just that, when we do agree.... And I do want to be able to have the kids around at the same time."
"Anyway, I appreciate your trying," she said. And, on that unsatisfactory note, their conversation ended.
She finished wrapping gifts on Sunday, and washed clothes -- including the wash-by-hand stuff which had been accumulating -- on Monday. She had their meal for the train prepared and in Tupperware Tuesday morning. She'd rationed herself on milk all weekend to keep enough for Billy's cereal. Except for the two care packages, she killed off the food in the refrigerator for lunch, and an odd lunch it was too. That left nothing to do until it was time to prepare for her date.
After a few hours of television, she took as leisurely a bath as she could. Then she dressed. There was really no reason to wear the nice lingerie; Knut sure wasn't going to see it. Still, it did go with the rest of the outfit. This was the last better- than-school outfit that Knut hadn't seen. She could have gotten away with a teaching outfit for the Chinese dinner.
She was still in her slip when the phone rang. "This is Sarah Jenkins," she answered. That earned her a chuckle.
"Well, this isn't," Knut said. "Look, I'll leave in five minutes or so." Five minutes? She had neither her dress nor her face on! It was only ten minutes after five. "I should be there by six, but I can't guarantee it in this weather."
"By six? Where are you?"
"I'm at the office."
"On Christmas eve?"
"This is the business rush," he said. "Then we have another rush for individual clients in April. I stayed home most of the weekend. Anyway, I may be late; and I'm sorry."
"No need to be sorry. I won't put my coat on until you ring."
She did, however, spray herself with perfume and put on her face. She put on her dress and sat waiting for his ring. He was on time; she had been early. "Is middle-Eastern cooking all right?" he asked.
"I haven't had much of it."
"Do you feel like experimentation? Or would you prefer something more familiar?"
"Let's live dangerously," she said.
The place was half-empty. They took their time over selecting their food; really, she took her time. He'd known what he wanted. "I'm having some wine," he said. "Do you want anything to drink?" She settled on a glass of rose'. The food was very tasty, if a trifle rich.
They talked of Christmas today and their Christmases as young children. She didn't have a tree this year; the tree at her parents would be enough. He had already set up the tree. "And all the presents are locked in my room. I'd trust Rebecca with my wallet, but not to pass a tree without opening her presents."
Her parents had always insisted that presents could not be opened before Christmas morning. "But the first Christmas after we were married, I persuaded Fred to open them on Christmas Eve. I had always hated to wait. Now, it'll be the evening of Christmas day; and Billy won't care."
At about that time, she'd found her glass empty. Knut called the waitress over, and then asked if she wanted more wine. She did; besides, it would have been wrong to bring the waitress over for nothing.
She'd grown up with artificial trees. "Shedding needles just isn't part of my picture of Christmas."
His family had always had real trees. "I didn't care if it was scraggly, but the Christmas tree had to be taller than I was. That was fine when I was Rebecca's age. It got to be fairly restrictive by the time I was fifteen or so. Rebecca gets insistent on crazy details, and I say 'Why me, Lord?' Then I think back. I know why it is happening to me; she's my daughter."
"And your tree this year?"
"It's not quite as tall as I am. But it's full; Rebecca insists on full. Maybe we have a little less to spend on presents, but I don't quite put it to her that way."
She took a sip of wine. The glass was less than half full, and she didn't want to order another. "Billy will come home loaded with presents from his father."
"Candice tried to make that a contest, too. I let her win. You know Billy better than he does; you know what he'll remember in six months."
"Yeah! I know what he wants, but what he needs is clothes. He's growing so fast. And my support check will be real late in January." She didn't know where that confession came from.
"Ouch! And you are only paid when you sub."
"Friday is the only day on my next paycheck. Well," she corrected herself, "the next one would come tomorrow if it weren't for Christmas. The one after next."
"At least he warned you."
"The hell he did. It's just that the check's almost always late, and later when he has major expenses, like splurging on Billy's Christmas. I shouldn't have had that wine."
"Why not?" he asked. "You can't tell Billy; he deserves to have a good image of his father, whatever his father deserves. You have to talk to somebody, and I won't quote you."
"And I keep telling myself that he can be a perfectly good father, whatever his faults as a husband."
"Some faults as a husband, sure. But the payments are for support of his son. Sorry! That's rather a sore point with me. Although I will admit that Candice is responsible on finances. Still, it galls when 'Becca sees one of my faults as a parent as that I don't provide what a traditional mother would."
"You seem an exemplary parent to me." 'Exemplary,' she sounded so much like an English teacher! Why wouldn't the board hire her as one?
"You're not a sixth-grader. I think kids' highest ranking for parents is 'barely adequate.' And Rebecca seldom accords me that. Well, enough of parenting. Are you enjoying the food?"
"Very much." And they talked of trivia until it was time to leave.
When they reached her apartment door, she asked "Do you want some coffee?" She dumped her coat on a chair on the way to the kitchen. When she brought the coffee in, her coat wasn't there; neither was his, for that matter. He must have hung them in the entrance-way closet. Her night things were in there!
Well, he probably hadn't guessed that the track suit was her sleeping gear. She set the coffee down on the end tables, not really wanting to suggest that he sit so far from her. This was ridiculous! They had both refused more of the excellent, rich restaurant coffee; she was serving him instant. She might as well have asked him up to see her etchings.
She sat as far toward the middle of the sofa as was compatible with reaching her cup. His mouth quirked upwards, and he sat about two inches to her left, one arm over the back of the sofabed.
"I'm glad we experimented," she said. "That food was good."
"Yes. But there was a moment there when I was sorry that I hadn't taken you to a place where they use chopsticks. I could have given you another lesson."
"I thought I'd done a creditable job."
"Sure," he agreed, "but the people in the restaurant wouldn't have known that. If I'd taken your hands to show you how to hold a knife and fork, however, they might have guessed my motives." She had to reach over to set her cup and saucer down.
He took her left hand in his. "Lovely hand," he said. He kissed the four knuckles and the middle of the back. "Lovely fingers." He kissed the tip of each finger, then he kissed the middle of her palm. A thrill ran through her at that. She was aware of a dampening between her legs, and the man hadn't even kissed her lips.
He pulled her hand towards his left, and pressed on her shoulder at the same time. She swayed into the shelter of his hug. Abandoning her hand, he held her chin while he kissed her mouth. He didn't need to turn her face, she'd already positioned it for his kiss.
His kiss was gentle, then fierce, then gentle again for a long time. Still he kept his mouth closed. When he broke it, he kissed the tip of her nose. He licked across her lips. When she opened them he pressed his tongue within.
When his tongue tip reached hers, she thrilled to the touch. And touch it was; he didn't try to push it aside. She was barely conscious of his hand smoothing upward from her waist. When he cupped her breast, though, she knew it. How far should she let him go? With Billy gone, the law would let her have sex in the apartment. And, Knut -- divorced himself -- almost certainly knew that. She didn't want to go that far. Well, she might want to go that far, but she wasn't that sort of woman.
And that was the hell with a sofabed. One thing could lead to another, but you couldn't ease along until you were in bed together if getting the bed out was a major operation. And she sure wasn't going to have sex in Billy's bed.
Anyway, she wasn't going to have sex at all. And, to give Knut credit, he didn't seem to be headed in that direction. Instead, he kept his hands -- both hands by now, he'd reached his arm over her shoulder and under her arm -- on her breasts outside her dress. Through dress and bra, though, those hands excited her. And, while they were caressing and he was holding her breasts, his mouth was moving from hers to her neck and ear. He kissed there, and sometimes gave tiny little licks. More than that, though, he was nibbling at her with his lips.
How long they sat like that, she couldn't tell. Finally, it was Knut who drew them back to earth. He removed his hands, moved from intense involvement with her ear to light kisses on her forehead and hairline. Finally, he sat there with one arm around her while she lay back with her head against his shoulder. The intensity had dropped, but she felt comfortable there.
Indeed, she must have dropped off. The sound which jerked her awake was her own snore. When she straightened her head suddenly, it hit his jaw. She couldn't tell which was more mortifying. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said.
"Did that hurt?"
"It didn't hurt me." It must have hurt him, though.
"Then," he said, "there's nothing to be sorry about. It is time, though, for me to be on my way. I'll let you get to bed. I do apologize for staying so long. It would be totally hypocrisy to say 'I'm sorry.' But I do apologize." He rose and made his preparations. With his coat on, ready to go out the door, he tilted her head up for another kiss.
She closed and locked the door, pulled out the bed, and got undressed down to bra and panties. She dumped the coffee down the kitchen sink and put the cups and the saucers in the dishpan. They had both been cold, and Knut's had looked full -- as if he hadn't tasted it. She carried her nightclothes into the bathroom. Fred would bring Billy back in the morning; she had the house to herself that night. Still sleepy, she was tempted to skip the bath. That wouldn't do, however. She didn't get this much privacy often. Didn't get this much temptation often either. Soaking in the tub, she remembered Knut's visit.
She'd had sex with boys before Fred. She'd never slept in anyone's arms before Fred, though. Nor after Fred, either. She wondered if this counted. Probably not, but it had felt cozy. Strange, considering how turned-on she'd felt. You'd think that an aroused woman would never go to sleep. Clean, she opened the drain. She set the shower head to a warm and very gentle spray. It wasn't as gentle on her breasts as Knut's hands had been, though. When the water had drained nearly enough, she turned the spray on her thighs. Would he have been gentle with those as well? Would she have wanted him to be?
While she played the spray over herself, the surface of the water was dropping to the level of her vulva. Roiled by the spray, this splashed her and tickled her. Wanting more, she leaned way back and changed the shower head to a direct stream. She played this over her vulva. She grunted as she came. She turned the water down to a trickle with her toes and dropped the shower head.
After a bit, the hardness of the tub against her buttocks and the chill with the water gone overcame her lassitude. She got up, turned the cold on, and sprayed down the tub to rid it of any remaining soap. Toweled dry, dressed in the track suit, she left the bathroom and climbed into the sofabed.
It felt lonely. She'd felt overpowered many times dealing with the bureaucracy of the Board of Ed., dealing with a boy who sometimes seemed a total alien though he'd come out of her body, dealing with Fred who was only slightly more responsible than Billy -- and occasionally less responsible. She'd felt overpowered, alone, friendless. She'd never felt that the sofabed in the tiny apartment was lonely before. But not even that feeling could keep her long awake.
Fred brought Billy back loaded with toys. Sarah wondered whether she would get any check in January. Billy was also cranky from lack of sleep, but -- at least -- that meant he'd sleep on the train. He brightened up for opening their gifts. Having received almost every toy he had asked for -- Billy couldn't see why he would never have a model train with the sort of elaborate set-up that department stores displayed -- he was happy opening up the clothes she had given him. Maybe he'd remember who'd given them to him after the toys were lost or broken.
The phone rang while she was complimenting Billy on the nice scarf he had wrapped for her. Her former mother-in-law had picked it out, but she hadn't had any part in the wrapping. She could tell that by the state of the package. "We wish you a merry Christmas," the caller sang. Then Knut switched to speech. "I know this is a travel day. Am I taking too much time?"
"No." They had hours yet, and she was almost packed.
"I have someone here who wants to talk with you."
The next voice was Rebecca's. "Hello, Mrs. Jenkins. Merry Christmas to you and to Billy."
"Why, thank you, Rebecca. And a merry Christmas to you, too."
"Merry Christmas," Knut said.
"And a merry Christmas to you two, as well." 'To you two, too' would have been clumsy as hell. It would make six, she thought suddenly.
"I wanted to say how much I enjoyed your company last night. And to wish you a safe and not-too-hectic trip." The man had traveled with a kid. She could tell.
"Two thoughts for the same phone call?" She hoped he didn't mind her teasing. Well, he'd raised the issue first.
"Ah, but you're going to be gone for the rest of the year." Which sounded much more than the ten days it would be. "And I don't have your parents' phone number."
"It's in Milwaukee." Nobody, she thought, would make a long- distance call just to chat. But then, maybe Knut would. "Well, merry Christmas." She'd said that already.
"Merry Christmas, enjoy your family, happy New Year." And he hung up. Afterwards, she thought that she hadn't said that she'd enjoyed his company, too. And, if that sounded too suggestive (the time in his company she'd enjoyed most was in her apartment after the dinner, and she didn't want to say that), she could have thanked him for the meal.
She felt a little guilty about that, though. She'd been eating many more restaurant meals than Billy recently. Well, he'd had two feasts at Fred's parents' house. And it wasn't as if she were spending family funds.
Billy fell asleep early on the train trip. The train was only half-full, unlike the crush which must have filled it the last few days. They were close to Milwaukee when he really woke up. And the other passengers were friendly towards a cheerful boy. If any of them remembered the monster who had afflicted the train before it got moving, they didn't mention it.
Mom and Dad picked them up at the station. They had waited dinner for them. Billy got all his favorite foods, and there was none of the insistence on vegetables he suffered at home. There was home-made apple pie for dessert. They opened presents before he went off to bed. Billy's presents from her folks were a nice mixture of the toys he wanted and the clothes she wanted him to have. She'd packed one more gift for him.
The last gift she received was in an envelope instead of wrapped. It was a check for a hundred dollars. "Now, dear," her mom said, "you know we love Billy. But this is our gift to you. Get something good for yourself this time. You always put him first."
"Thanks, Mom," she said, "I will." After all, a few week's food was something for herself. She would be late with the January rent as it was, and had told the landlord that. The money from the school district would be there on the first, but she wouldn't. She could pay the rent with her paycheck and buy groceries with this until Fred's check got there.
When she opened her mailbox on her return, however, there was an envelope from Fred. It contained a check, a check on his parents' account signed by his mother, but still a check. For that matter, this was the first check from Fred in a long time that Sarah was sure wouldn't bounce. The sub center called her for the first day, and she called Deb from the school. Sarah was careful to check with her when she wanted to do something on the way home. This day, is was to make her deposit.
She took her rent across the street after Billy was in bed. "Thank you, Mrs. Jenkins," the landlord said, "and merry Christmas." She couldn't place the accent, but it wasn't American. He joked with his grandchildren in another language, too. She wondered how many of her countrymen would take a late payment with such courtesy.
"Thank you. And merry Christmas to you."
A card from Knut had been in the mail with the more urgent stuff. She should call him, but there were still two more phone calls she had to make. She recorded her availability at the sub center, and then dialed her in-laws.
"Hello Mom Jenkins. You shouldn't have."
"Yes, I should have, Sarah. Really, you aren't in a position any more to criticize my loaning money to my son." Sarah couldn't argue with that. And Mrs. Jenkins knew her son well enough that she lent him the money as a check made out to Sarah.
"Well," she admitted, "I deposited the check before I called to say you shouldn't have." And, since Fred wasn't out any of the January check -- lending to Fred was a polite fiction -- he might well cough up the February support early in February. After that, it was a lost cause. "Anyway, thank you."
"You're welcome, dear. Billy asleep?"
"Then give him my love."
That was nice phone call. And her next one would be even nicer. "Knut Gustafson speaking."
"Knut? This is Sarah Jenkins. I want to thank you for your Christmas card."
"You guys back? Must be; school started today. How was your trip? I understand that O'Hare stayed open through the last patch of bad weather, but the landing couldn't have been fun."
"I wouldn't know. We went by train. It was Milwaukee. The trip was fine, if crowded on the way back. The time with my parents went great."
"That's very good to hear. Loving grandparents?"
"And loving parents."
"I'm glad for you. For both of you. You're the sort of caring people who deserve caring people around you. Of course, whether it's heredity or environment, that sort of people is more likely to have caring family. Well, enough of Knut's half-baked philosophy."
"I'm glad we come across to you as caring. I'm not sure we have been."
"Billy is at an age where you have to expect some rough edges. He isn't nasty." She'd known Billy to be nasty. Knut might not have seen him act that way, but the people on the train had. Still, Knut was right; that was just the kid in him.
"I should have thanked you for the meal earlier, too."
"You did. If you mean the phone call, you were distracted. I made the call and decided the subject of the conversation. And that subject was Christmas and your future trip." He had mentioned the dinner, but she wasn't going to contradict him when he was being polite. "Anyway," he continued, "the pleasure was all mine."
"Not all." She was safe contradicting him there. "I enjoyed myself greatly."
"Anyway, welcome back. I suppose Billy is in bed."
"Well," Knut said "I'm glad he's back safe and sound, too, even if I don't tell him so, personally."
He called later in the week. "This is Knut Gustafson. Meeting you in the store was a pleasant surprise, but that must be an unpleasant walk in this weather. I'm going shopping Sunday. Would you like a ride there and back?"
"That would be kind. What time?"
"That's a little uncertain. Church ends at noon, but they aren't fanatical about it. And next Sunday is communion, which always slows things down. It's in Evanston. The drive isn't much, but the weatherman is threatening snow. Let's say I'll call you, but plan for one or one-thirty. Is it okay if I park in my home parking space? It's a little walk, but better than the store."
"Much better. Thank you very much."
"My pleasure. I have a phone in my car, so I'll call you before one-thirty, whatever."
He called right at one-thirty to announce a delay. He called her again from the car, telling her that he was in the alley behind her building. He was holding the door on her side when she came down the stairs. "Now that's service," she said.
With the checks, she could afford to stock up. "Taking advantage of your kind offer," she explained to Knut. "Besides, I let things run out in anticipation of the trip." He carried two of her bags up her back stairs and into the kitchen. Their kiss was perfunctory. "I like holding you better when I'm holding less," he said.
"I like it better, too," she admitted.
And, that night in the tub, she thought of Knut's holding her and nothing else. He was naked, too, in her imagination. What would it be like?
It was Tuesday evening, and she was giving Billy a bath when Knut called. "This is Knut Gustafson. Is this a bad time to call?"
Well, Billy could stay happily in the tub for a few more minutes. "This is fine."
"You'll be by yourself this Saturday?"
"Rebecca and I would like to invite you to dinner," he said. "Are hamburgers okay?"
"They're fine." Rather surprising for the gourmet she thought Knut to be, but she liked his company. She liked Rebecca's company, too, although she would have preferred Knut's alone.
"She's cooking, and sixth graders don't have a great kitchen repertoire."
"Thanks. I'm sure that it will be fine."
"Well, you won't have to eat first. Five-thirty okay? You know our address, or maybe you don't remember. It's 1217, lefthand door. We met you in the Sandoval's apartment, which is the right-hand door."
Rebecca's cooking was confined to the hamburger patties and the torn-up lettuce which was the salad. Knut had cooked green beans for a vegetable, and he'd sliced tomatoes and raw onions for garnishes. The levels of neatness distinguished the father's preparations from the daughter's. There were also squeeze bottles of catsup and mustard, a dish containing relish and another containing chopped fried onions. All in all, it was a much better meal than 'hamburgers cooked by a sixth-grader' had implied. Sarah had guessed right on clothes, too. Her skirt and blouse were as informal as Knut's slacks and flannel shirt. It was the first time since Halloween she'd seen him without a tie.
Knut took the charred-looking patties for himself. She couldn't tell if that were an odd preference or parental acceptance of the worst. Rebecca put cooked onions on her hamburger along with a slathering of catsup. Nobody took the slices of raw onion at all. Sarah couldn't tell if they had been intended for her. Dessert was ice cream -- Rocky Road.
A little after the meal was over, Knut said, "I'll drive you home, if you don't mind going the long way. 'Becca and some of her friends are going to a movie."
"Why thank you." His car was parked almost as far from his door as her house was.
Rebecca got in first, the back seat. Knut tugged at her seat belt. "Point for Gryffindor," he said. The two girls whom they picked the way joined Rebecca in the back, and Knut checked their seat belts. They seemed used to the drill.
Knut parked and walked the girls to the ticket window with his wallet in his hand. He had to park a block and a half away to walk her to her door. And she had thought her offer of instant coffee was a lame excuse for asking him in. But neither of them commented.
In her apartment, he took her chin in his hand to kiss her. It was a sweet kiss, almost a chaste kiss. He took her coat when she unbuttoned it. He unzipped his own and dropped both across a chair. Sitting on the sofa brought their heads closer to the same level. The kisses were better like that. She leaned back in his arm while his tongue explored her mouth. He seemed to take her wearing the buttoned blouse as an invitation. It hadn't been, not a conscious one. Still, his hands on her bra-clad breasts thrilled her.
He kissed down her neck to the line at the top of the bra. "Lean forward, will you?" he said. Now, that would be an invitation; but it was one she was willing to extend. He unsnapped the bra and lifted it. His kisses continued over her breasts.
"Oh," she said when he sucked her nipple.
He returned to her mouth and they kissed passionately while his hand held her breast. He held the nipple between thumb and forefinger, quite gently. Finally, he broke the kiss to ask, "Wouldn't you be more comfortable without these?" She leaned forward again while he removed her blouse. He put it on his end of the couch while she shrugged out of the bra and put it on her end.
He kissed her hairline and forehead before returning to her mouth. This time he held her left breast. She was leaning against the other arm, but still it was long enough so that he could just stroke her right breast with it. The touches were gentle, still. They were almost tickles.
He broke that kiss and withdrew the hand on her right breast to kiss her there. Soon he was sucking on one nipple and then on the other. His hand held her knee under her skirt, then it moved up her thigh, stroking as it went. He seemed to be in no hurry, and she enjoyed some more kisses and strokes before he reached her vulva. "Oh Sarah!" he said. He stroked her through the pantyhose quite skillfully, and she reacted quite warmly.
The warmth turned to fire. She clutched his head to hers. His tongue explore her mouth as his fingers stroked her labia. When the fire took her, she grunted and shook in his arms. When she relaxed, he withdrew his hand and lifted his head. "Oh Sarah!" he said again.
He held her cuddled against him, not trying to grab anything, while she sagged in his arms. A while later, he took his hand off her knee to look at his watch. He put the hand back. He hadn't got his; was he thinking it was about time he did?
The second time he looked at his watch, he said, "Look, I could hold you like this forever, if it was just me; but there will be three girls coming out of a movie theater onto a dark sidewalk in ten minutes. They'll be overheated and the street will be cold. I'd better be there."
She could see that. "Thanks for the dinner," she said. She couldn't very well thank him for the orgasm. "Thanks for everything." Which more-or-less did.
"The pleasure was mine. Thanks for the company." Well, the pleasure hadn't been all his. Still, it was nice of him to say so. When he was in the midst of zipping up his coat, he said, "I almost forgot. On for shopping tomorrow?"
"Yes." And his wording was, for once, perfect. It wasn't something she could be thought to have traded a make-out session for; it wasn't his contribution to charity; it was a standing date he'd forgotten to confirm earlier.
"Good, same constraints apply. I'll call before one-thirty." And he was gone.
She had work to do, but that didn't darken her mood. She hummed as she piled the laundry up for her trip to the laundromat the next day. This Knut guy was good for her. She just hoped she hadn't grunted when she came. "Like a pig," Fred had used to say. And Fred, who didn't know much about most things, probably knew a lot about pigs. He was pretty much a pig himself.
Sunday, they went shopping again. Rebecca carried Knut's frozen food up to their apartment while Knut drove Sarah home. He carried one of two bags up her back stairs, and got a kiss for his trouble. She was tempted to ask him to stay longer, but his car was in the alley and his daughter would wonder where he was.
Knut called Wednesday night. "Would it be too parental," he asked, "to take Billy and you to a restaurant which would broaden his culinary horizons?"
"Really?" Not too parental. And she would enjoy the meal, but would she be inflicting that on Billy because she would enjoy it? "Really, I don't know."
"Then, why don't we split the difference. Why don't we go to a Thai restaurant on Saturday? Some of the stuff is hotter than Chinese, but I'd warn him about that."
"Who says we're going anywhere Saturday?" Was he being bossy again, or taking her for granted?
"Why you, of course. Or, rather, you say whether you're going anywhere on Saturday. This was an invitation. It's just that -- instead of my asking you to a Thai restaurant, take it or leave it -- I'm respecting your parental judgment. You can say that you think that the Chinese would be better."
"I'm sorry, Knut. I don't know why I'm feeling bitchy."
"And I'm sorry, too. Look, this sounds like a bad time, but you've been warned. Don't take me to task for issuing the invitation too late."
He called again on Friday when Billy was asleep. "This is Knut. Is this a bad time?"
"A good time. I don't know why I felt you were taking control last time."
"Moi? Who could think that of me?" His tone showed that it was a joke. He was bossy as hell, but at least he recognized it. "Anyway, it was my fault. I should have asked if it was convenient."
"I don't know why." She didn't want to be as controlling as he was.
"Because I don't want to annoy you. Anyway, if it's not convenient and I don't ask, tell me 'not now.' Hang up if it's really inconvenient."
"I was rude enough. I couldn't do that."
"Well, if you want to, do it." Except for mornings when it might be the sub center, she didn't answer the phone when it was that inconvenient. "To change the subject abruptly, would the two of you like to eat out tomorrow night?"
"Thank you," she said. "I'm sure you could get more pleasant company."
"Company in a better mood, maybe. Company whose presence I'd enjoy more, no. So, it's not as if I hadn't warned you. Chinese or Thai? That's assuming your 'thank you' was a yes."
"I'm not sure I could put up with a tantrum just now. And the Chinese place does have his favorite food."
"Chinese it is. Another change of subject. You aren't working on King's birthday. Billy and Rebecca are off school. Would you like a joint expedition to the Museum of Science and Industry?"
"Surely you're working then."
"The office will be open. The rush will be over. I don't really get comp time, much less overtime. But, after the hours I worked, nobody is going to object to a day off. On the other hand, the museum will probably be overrun with kids."
"So would the apartment." Well, overrun with one kid. "Thank you very much."
The meal was pretty much a repetition of the previous one. They had sweet and sour shrimp, broccoli beef, chicken with peapods, and pansit. The latter was a noodle dish she hadn't tasted before.
The kiss was luscious, but fairly brief. They were apart when Billy came to the back door. "Thank you," she said.
"Yeah, thanks!" Billy said. It was unrehearsed, and sounded like it.
"You are quite welcome. Both of you. I'll call you about shopping."
The new school gave her the weirdest assignment yet. Successive classes were on opposite ends of the building and on different floors. On the other hand, one of her fellow teachers was a neighbor whom she knew slightly. Betty Garcia offered her a ride home, and she accepted gratefully.
She told Betty her puzzlement over the badly arranged schedule.
Betty laughed. "Miss Weaver?"
"Yes. She must be mountain goat to maintain that schedule."
"She's no mountain goat. Closer to a cripple. Mr. Jerome," the principal, "wants to get rid of her. He can't fire her, but he can assign her to any classroom he wants. Somehow she's gotten sick a lot more often this year on that schedule."
"And I have to maintain it, lest she come back?"
On the other hand, this looked like an assignment which would last for a while. And she did have money in the bank, money she had promised her mom to spend on herself. Not even Fred would be able to find an excuse for the February check being late, when he hadn't had to come up with the January payment. One positive benefit of having been shuttled around the city was that she could wear the same outfit on successive days. Nobody in the different schools would know.
Well, she was wearing outfits to this school which she had worn here before. One new blouse would at-least minimize that problem. And she wanted to wear something for Knut that he hadn't seen before, too. After checking with Deb that it was okay, she had Betty drop her off at an EL stop. She went to Carson's to shop for a nice blouse. She found one, not too fancy for school, not too plain for dates with Knut, for a good deal less than her mom had given her. Thinking of Knut, she splurged on a front-closure bra. The total ran a little over the hundred, but with steady work she should still keep a healthy balance.
She stocked up on groceries on Sunday, as well. She didn't splurge, but she bought good supplies of her staples. She got three times as much laundry detergent as she usually bought for a little more than twice the price.
Knut left her while she was unlocking the back door. She couldn't see why he didn't stick around, especially since the bag he left was hard to pick up off the floor of the porch. By the time she had everything inside, though, he was climbing up with a third bag. He set it on the kitchen counter. "There," he said, unzipping his coat.
She unbuttoned hers. She was tempted to open the blouse as well, but his car was blocking the alley. (And his hands probably would have been freezing cold.) They had a nice kiss, all the same. His hands moved up and down her back as his tongue explored her mouth. Finally, he tipped her head down to kiss the top. It was a fond kiss, rather than a sexy one. He left her with a "Thanks for the company." He'd given her a ride; he'd carried her groceries up the stairs; and he'd thanked her.
She had Billy all ready when he phoned the next morning. "I'm parked closer to your place than to mine. Mind if we come by and we all walk to the car together?" he asked.
"That would be fine."
"You guys ready to roll, or do you need more time?"
"Let us get on our coats."
"Ten minutes, then," he said. It was no more than five when he buzzed her apartment, though.
"Hello," Knut said. "Ready to roll?"
"Hello Mrs. Jenkins," said Rebecca. "Hi Billy." She seemed to be on her best behavior. The car was in the opposite direction than his house. She waited on the sidewalk while Knut unlocked the front door on the passenger side of the car and unlocked and opened the back door. Billy, who wanted to go on this trip, climbed in the back. Knut opened the front door for her.
"Wait," Knut said. "Okay" when a car had passed. He opened the door for Rebecca and checked her seat belt. "One point," he said.
"Does Billy get a point?"
"Okay," said Knut. "Billy, do you want to play?" If Billy knew what he was being asked to play -- and he very well might as Rebecca, another kid, had suggested it -- Sarah was completely in the dark.
"You can be in Slitherin," said Rebecca.
"And that," said Knut "is ten points off. If you'd said 'Hufflepuff' I wouldn't have minded. But Harry and Hermione and all those guys are in Gryffindor together." Rebecca, who apparently spoke this language, nodded. "Okay, Billy, do you want to be in the same house as Rebecca?" Knut looked at her. "That was less suggestive than it sounded. I'll explain when we're rolling."
Billy, who looked as puzzled as she felt, said "Okay."
"If I check your belt like I checked Rebecca's, that's a point for your house." Billy must have nodded, because Knut leaned over and tugged.
Behind the wheel and with the engine running, Knut opened his coat and got out a tiny notebook and a stick pen. "I'm writing that as a minus nine," he said. "Why don't we treat this trip separately? Do you want to do the writing?" The last was addressed to her.
"Sure. I don't know what I'm writing though."
He handed her the notebook opened backwards. "Put a plus one." He waited for a car to pass, then turned out into the street. "Harry Potter is a fictional character, hero of two books. There will be more. You're lucky that Billy isn't crazy about him. Don't expect that luck to continue. Even so, I found the books to be worth reading for their own sake -- beyond knowing what worlds my daughter was occupying some of the times she wasn't paying attention to this one.
"Anyway, Harry goes to a special school -- an English boarding school, except that they teach the kids to do magic. Don't seem to teach English and science, come to think about it. The kids at the school are divided into four houses. Harry is in Gryffindor; Slitherin are the villains. The teachers give or deduct points for good or bad behavior. The points go to your house rather than to you personally. The house with the highest score gets a celebration, but it's mainly for vanity. The author knows what she's doing. Well, 'Becca and I do much of the same. Points for doing right, points off for doing wrong. I'm a bit arbitrary, but so are the teachers in the book. Works."
He raised his voice. "Mrs. Jenkins, Billy's mom, can give points, too." He continued in a more normal tone, "You might want to listen for a bit first, though. Get's us on the same scale. For example, fastening your seat belt is expected. It's only one point." He wasn't trying to keep any secrets from the back seat; probably that would be impossible anyhow. She figured out that he just raised his voice to let them know they were included in the intended audience.
He said nothing more until he got on the Outer Drive. Once in the flow of traffic, he visibly relaxed. "Been to the museum before?"
"That's right. You're from Milwaukee aren't you?"
"Grew up outside of there." She knew better than to say 'Cudahy' to a Chicagoan. "My parents live in the city now."
"The museum is where a lot of field trips go, though you'd think that the Museum of Natural History would get the field trips. I'm surprised you haven't taken a group there." A high- school sub didn't take many field trips. "Anyway, there are things intended for adults. Probably most of it is intended for adults. Myself, I like what one of 'Becca's Sunday-School teachers said. 'The compensation for teaching Sunday School is you get to do finger painting after you're supposed to have grown up.' I follow 'Becca around, enjoy what she enjoys, and pretend to be a jaded sophisticate watching over my kid. Anything you want to see, anything special, I'll watch the two of them. Anything you especially want Billy to see, we'll all go together."
"That's very generous of you."
"Not very. When you see the museum you'll understand. There's not much I won't enjoy. And I'll enjoy Billy's enjoyment, too. I enjoy Rebecca's. You a claustrophobe?"
"Two of the exhibits are a coal mine and a U-boat. Might bother claustrophobes. For that matter, watch out for signs of Billy's being affected. You'd be more sensitive to that than I would."
"I don't think he's claustrophobic either."
"Not normally. These exhibits can affect a kid -- adults even -- oddly."
When they got to the museum, he had a family pass. She'd fully intended to pay her and Billy's way, but it wasn't costing Knut any more. Billy was quite content to let Rebecca show him "the neat stuff," and Sarah and Knut trailed behind.
Knut said "Hold it" once, and then "Okay" when the two of them had nearly caught up. "Y'know," Knut said while the kids were talking to the moon, "I am bigger than Billy is. Why is doing what I want an imposition when doing what 'Becca wants is welcome attention from a big kid?" He was smiling, almost laughing. The words expressed resentment, the face only humor.
He'd been right. The exhibits were fascinating, and it didn't hurt that she needed to examine them to see what her son had seen. After about an hour, Knut drew her back from the kids who seemed to have forgotten them. "Want to trade kids for the bathroom break?" he asked. It seemed reasonable. He waited until they started to move on, and then called them back to him. "Okay," he said, "we're going to visit the restrooms. Billy will come with me; Rebecca will go with Mrs. Jenkins. Remember that she can take away points." Since he hadn't mentioned the points since telling her to watch what he did to get the scale, she was a bit puzzled. In the event, nothing untoward happened. Rebecca showed her that she had washed her hands. She also noticed that Billy's cuffs were wet afterwards.
"Hungry?" Knut asked them some hours later. They were. Sarah was hungry, too. "I think we could use another bathroom break." he said to her. Bladders emptied, hands washed, they met again. Knut pointed the way towards the cafeteria. "I'd suggest a sandwich," he said to her. "Not to eat, though you can. I mean I suggest that you lead off in the line and I bring up the rear with Billy and Rebecca in between."
They did it that way. Somehow, Rebecca was after her; and she was waiting to pay for Billy's meal with hers when Knut waved a couple of bills at the cashier. "You didn't need to do that," she said.
"I didn't need to invite you at all. Having done so, I'd be a poor host if I invited you to pay your own way." The coal mine cost extra, and Knut paid that, too.
"Time to go?" he asked her later in the day. It was. He generalled one more bathroom break, not that she'd have taken Billy out of the museum without one. Then he led them out of the museum. Billy and Rebecca started to race ahead. "Stop at the street," Knut called. "Look," he said to her, "I don't know your schedule. Do you have anything urgent for later today?"
"Not really. I have to cook Billy's supper fairly soon, though." They both were looking as the kids approached the (quite empty, fortunately) street. Rebecca stopped, Billy glanced to his left and kept going. Rebecca grabbed him and whispered something in his ear.
Knut chuckled. "Points," he said. "Hang 'Becca in a dark closet by her toenails, and she'd play at being a bat. Award her points and she acts like a saint."
If he'd said 'spanking' she'd have taken him seriously. Hanging a girl by her toes -- how did you hang somebody by her toenails? -- in a dark closet sounded like a joke, though not one she appreciated. Was she required to report it, all the same? She figured not, he'd used the subjunctive, after all. Still, she wished he wouldn't talk to her like that.
When he'd got the car on the expressway, Knut asked "Chinese Lantern again?" in a loud voice. The kids agreed enthusiastically. He could have consulted her. Then she realized that he had, sort of. For that matter, if she hadn't enjoyed this afternoon, she would have made up some engagement when he'd asked whether she had something urgent coming up. He was still too bossy; he could have run the restaurant by her first. He wasn't being horrible, though. And Billy would enjoy The Chinese Lantern again. She decided to let it pass.
At the restaurant, Knut pointed to Billy, "Sweet and sour shrimp?" Billy nodded enthusiastically. He pointed to Rebecca, "Broccoli beef?" She nodded. "And what would you like?" he asked her. At least he hadn't pointed.
"Choose another." Well, he was paying. Still, he didn't have to eat it. Why make a fuss, though? She thought it all looked good. "Mushroom egg fou young."
"Billy," Knut said, "the last. It can't be shrimp and it can't be sweet-and-sour."
"But," she pointed out, "you haven't chosen."
"Oh. I was going to take the pepper steak." Then why hadn't he let her order it?
Anyway, he was going to pay the bill, he should get a choice. "You choose the last." Billy was still lost in the menu, anyway.
"Okay. Barbecued pork fried rice." It wasn't until he did the ordering -- including the pepper steak -- that she figured out that he had meant for her to choose one in addition. This ordering five dishes for four people seemed extravagant to her.
The pepper steak was good, the fried rice not to her taste. Somehow, though, the broccoli beef tasted best of all this day. She took an extra-large second helping, then remembered that Rebecca counted the leftovers as her spoils. She looked over at the girl guiltily.
"It is good, isn't it?" Rebecca said. Could she have been that generous at Rebecca's age? She'd probably have to pretend even now.
"Transparent, 'Becca," Knut said. "I can see the back of your chair." She couldn't; she couldn't even think what Knut was talking about. It didn't seem to worry Rebecca though.
Knut got the cartons of leftovers in two bags when he paid. "Want to go straight home?" he asked Rebecca. She nodded.
He stopped in front of his house before driving in back of hers. He handed Rebecca one bag as she got out. "Gee, thanks Dad," Rebecca said.
"Don't thank me too hard, one of those is the fried rice. Sorry," he said to her. "Neither of you seemed to enjoy it."
No reason to be sorry. He'd paid for it, and it had been her least favorite dish. The leftovers that he gave to Billy when they stopped in the alley behind her building were a gift. Then she saw that he should be sorry, and sorry in a way he never would be. He'd decided; he'd decided for her just as he had for Rebecca. King Canute was coming out again.
Still, she kissed him on the porch while Billy raced to refrigerator and bathroom. He might be bossy, but he was kind as well.
Monday had been so fine she should have known that Tuesday was bound to be a disaster. The sub center called with another assignment. She was really tempted; it would almost certainly not involve running all over the building. Still she was committed. "Sorry," she said, "I have another assignment."
But, when she arrived at the school she found that she did not. Miss Weaver had finally resigned. The new teacher was there, and they didn't have a place for Sarah. She left a note for Betty and took the bus home. The problems didn't end there. She called in that night and Wednesday, but the sub center didn't call her with a job in the morning. She finally got one on Friday, but it would only be for one day.
She budgeted for missing two days work in two weeks, but she'd missed four days in this pay period. Subs weren't paid for Monday, of course. When Knut called Friday night, she almost cried at his cheerfulness. "Look, we were at The Chinese Lantern Monday. Do you think Billy would be willing to expand his horizons tomorrow?" Still, it wasn't Knut's fault, and that would be one meal they didn't have to buy.
The experiment wasn't a success. The Turkish restaurant didn't serve sweet and sour shrimp -- even knowing nothing of Turkish cuisine, she could have predicted that. Billy ate some of everything, but they took a lot home with them. She almost suggested that Knut take the doggie bag for himself, but she didn't. That would be lunches for herself for the next week.
She worked Monday, but not Tuesday. Even if she had worked then, it was a new pay period. The crisis would come before that check arrived. Crossing her fingers, she called Fred after Billy was asleep. "Could you send me the check a day or two earlier?" she asked. "You can date it the first; but if I know it's in the bank that day, I can write the rent check on the first."
"I meant to call you, Doll. My transmission went kaput. I had to get a new one, and they won't give me my car back 'til I get them the money. I don't know when I can give you the February support. Not in February, anyhow."
She cursed herself for buying the blouse. And the bra. What did she need with a new bra? She already had three that were good enough for school. That check would have covered a good part of the loss in pay. It wouldn't have come close to the loss in support.
Nothing she could do about groceries would cover that either. She'd paid the rent late before, but she would swear that she knew where the money was coming from. This time she didn't know. Knut seemed blithe when he and Rebecca picked her up for the shopping trip. He noticed, however, how little she was putting in her cart. "You buy these crackers, don't you? They're on sale this week. Better stock up."
"Can't," she said. "I can't afford what I'm buying now. God knows when my support check will come through." He didn't say anything more, and his taking four boxes of the crackers for himself seemed a little callous to her. That wasn't fair, though. He didn't wave them in her face. She was a little jealous to see him grab a twenty-pound sack of rice, though. How she wished she could afford to buy in those quantities. How she wished she could actually afford to buy in the piddling quantities she was actually taking that day!
When he stopped beside her back stairs, he asked Rebecca to help. The bag he handed to Sarah was the heavier of her two. If he had merely driven her back from the store and dropped her off, it would have been a favor, a major one. Still, a tiny corner of her mind which wasn't fuming over her situation wondered what was up. Maybe Knut had pulled a muscle and didn't want to mention it. Macho men!
Still, she heard Knut's footsteps on the stairs behind Rebecca's. She unlocked the door and picked up her bag. She set her bag down on the counter and took the bag Rebecca handed her. She set that down just as Knut dumped the twenty-pound bag of rice on her counter. "Not in front of Rebecca," he said as he headed down the stairs. Before she could think of language that would convey her feelings to him without scorching his daughter's ears, the car doors slammed.
Hours later her phone rang. "This is Knut Gustafson. Can Billy hear?"
"He's asleep. He's been asleep for hours."
"So's 'Becca. You can tell me what you think of me now."
"You are the sorriest excuse for a human being that ever lived. You can pick up your rice tomorrow. Otherwise I'll throw it in the garbage."
"Billy eats rice. I've seen him. If it's a matter of your eating crow or Billy eating nothing, you'll eat crow. You're a mother."
"So are you." Teaching in high schools hadn't really added to her vocabulary, but it had familiarized her with some terms that had been rarer when she was growing up in cudahy.
"It's not funny. You think I'll sell myself for a meal or two."
"Now that is unfair. What would have happened if I hadn't bought the rice but had carried your groceries up the stairs? You'd have kissed me. No?"
She didn't answer that, but he was right.
"So," he continued, "I didn't buy the rice because I thought I would get more from you. I knew I would get less."
"I'm not a charity case."
"You're not. You're the woman I love, and I won't see you going hungry. That's the bottom line. Now I like Billy. I'd rather feed him than have him lack basic nutrients in his growing years. There is something in us that wants the best for young kids. Probably the cavemen without that gene killed off their own descendants. But my feeling for you is much more basic. And Billy is my weapon. You would throw out perfectly good food rather than accept my care for you. You won't let your kid go hungry. Period."
"I'm the woman you love?" He'd never said that before. "You're the man I hate! How about that?"
"That's sad. But the choice is between your hating me and your harming yourself. I'll take the first. That's a choice I'll have to live with."
She was so mad that she slammed down the phone. He'd snuck around, and then he'd hidden behind his daughter. "Not in front of Rebecca," indeed.
She didn't even open the rice until Wednesday -- another day without a class. She spent the morning cleaning the apartment and cursing the entire male sex. Knut was as bad as Fred. Then she planned out the menus for the rest of the week and the next week. She didn't see how she was going to make it without the rice; she didn't even see how she was going to make it with the rice. Billy ate rice, sure; but he ate it with a topping.
And they damn-well weren't going to eat out on Saturday. She would never even speak to Knut again. She finally served the rice under a topping made from the stuff from the Turkish restaurant. It wasn't bad that way; well, compared to plain rice, it wasn't bad. Billy complained, but he ate some.
Rice with raisins and sugar could be a breakfast food. Would Billy eat it? Could she figure out how to fix it? His favorite crackers had been on sale. If she'd known she was going to miss a day of work, with the attendant savings on bus fare, she could have bought one box. She had enough peanut butter, had stocked up when she thought the money problems were solved. You couldn't eat peanut butter on rice.
Thursday, thank God, she got work. The classes were murder; but when it was a question of eating, of feeding her son, she would put up with wild teenagers. The phone rang late that night. "This is Knut Gustafson," he said. She slammed the phone down.
The same thing happened Friday. They would eat at home Saturday night. She could feed her own family, damn it, but it was annoying all the same that he bought them meals when she was feeling flush and not now.
She slept on that thought. She woke up with the thought that she might have been a little unfair to him. He was still a louse. He thought he ran the world, same as Fred did. He certainly thought he had her over a barrel. But he hadn't yet pushed that advantage. When he made an advance on the basis of her need, then was the time to slap his face. But half her anger at him was based on her anger at Fred.
And Knut, at least, wanted to feed Billy. He might go about it in a macho, bossy, fashion; but that was more than Fred wanted, and Billy was Fred's son.
Knut called again Saturday late morning. "This is Knut Gustafson."
"Yes, Mr. Gustafson. What do you want?"
"I'll let that opening pass. The reason I called was to invite you and your son to dinner with me."
"No thank you."
"That's too bad. Thank you for your neighborly civility. Have a good day." So the man would take no for an answer.
He didn't call Sunday, for a wonder. Rice was palatable with catsup. Monday, she got a job on the far Southwest Side. Bus connections were miserable, and she got home late. "I'm sorry, Sarah," Deb said when she picked up Billy. "You were late, and he was hungry. I fed him so much spaghetti, it will probably spoil his dinner." Considering the dinner she had planned, spoiling it was no problem.
Tuesday's school was much closer. When she picked Billy up, he was bubbling with what he thought was good news. Rebecca, a sixth grader had singled him out for attention at school. And she had invited the two of them to dinner, hamburgers. He had a typed invitation for them. Rebecca had signed it. The words, as well as the typing, were obviously Knut's.
And she had started to forgive the man, too. Now he was hiding behind his daughter's skirts again. She called up and got his answering machine. "This is Sarah Jenkins," she began her refusal.
"Mrs. Jenkins." Rebecca's voice answered her. "I'm not allowed to answer the phone when Dad isn't here, but you're all right. Can you and Billy come? Dad said that you might send Billy alone. Didn't you like my hamburgers?"
"Your hamburgers aren't the issue. And I wouldn't send Billy where I wasn't willing to go myself." Which sounded silly. Knut wasn't going to bother Billy. She'd sent him to the men's room with Knut. And, whatever she'd learned about Knut since, didn't include any danger to Billy. Besides, hamburgers -- even Rebecca's hamburgers -- would really please Billy. She could eat rice and soy sauce by herself. "What time should I send Billy over?" That would show Knut.
"Six-thirty. I know that's later than you eat, but I can't do anything until Dad gets here." Sarah had cooked by herself at that age, and more than hamburgers, too. King Canute bossed everybody, not just Sarah.
"Thank you for your invitation Rebecca."
"You are welcome. Bye."
Knut called. Well, the invitation had included Billy. He couldn't back out. But, in the event, he wasn't trying to.
"This is Knut Gustafson."
"Hello, Mr. Gustafson."
"Hello, Ms. Jenkins. I understand that Billy is going to be our guest tonight. I'm planning the vegetables, and I wondered what Billy tolerates. Does he hate spinach?"
"I guessed. I also have peas, green beans, and cauliflower. Which would be his favorite?"
"Consider it done. Do you want me to walk over to pick him up when it is time?"
"I'll bring him. Six-thirty?"
"Or thereabouts. He'll be welcome earlier, of course; but 'Becca won't be much of a hostess until the last patty is on the platter."
Knut came down when she rang his doorbell. He opened the door and greeted them both. Billy ran up the stairs. She went back to eat rice -- and, she admitted to herself, her pride. Knut called to tell her he was walking Billy back. He waited at the bottom of the stairs until she'd opened the top door for Billy. Knut didn't try to talk to her.
She worked the rest of the week. The check from the board would pay her rent, if a little late. It wouldn't pay her food. Since Fred's car was still in the shop, she had Billy that weekend. That should have been a joy; his appetite was a worry, instead.
Knut called Friday evening. "This is Knut Gustafson. Look, I know you're mad at me. If you want to say how much, I'll listen."
"No." She'd said it all. Besides, his willingness to be bawled out spoiled all the pleasure in doing it. Besides.... "I might have been too hard on you."
"Well, if so, that's a bygone. You're still in trouble. What help am I allowed to give?"
And just when she was about to forgive him too. "You could pay my rent this month." That would shut him up!
"Fine. How much and to who? If you want cash, that'll take nearly a day."
Was the man serious? And how come he made so much more than she did when his grammar stank? "To whom. When it's the object of a preposition, you are supposed to use the objective case."
"To whom is the check to be made out?"
"Oh Knut, you are impossible!" And she hung up the phone.
It rang a minute later. "This is Knut again. Look, I was serious. I gather that you weren't. What I was really asking was whether I should drive you to the store Sunday. If you want more, then you'll get more. Within reason; I'm not Bill Gates."
"I'm not shopping this week. I'll live on rice."
"You're cutting off your nose to spite your face, which is your decision. It's your nose. Will you cut off Billy's?"
"I'll call you back." First she cried.
And Knut had called at a time when she could cry without alarming Billy. Of course, he had really called at a time when she could curse him out without alarming Billy. Still .... He was arrogant and macho and full of himself. But he also worried about her good. He might step in when she was Billy's mother, but he never showed the slightest impatience, with him. Except for traffic, and that wasn't a time for letting kids make their own mistakes, he would set down the rules and wait for Billy to decide.
She'd been attracted to Knut, more than half-way in love with him. He had, she could tell, been attracted to her, too. Hell, he'd said so. But still, unlike the principal in her past, he hadn't connected the help with sex. He'd been right. If he hadn't brought the rice, he would have got at least a kiss. She owed him an apology.
"Knut Gustafson speaking." In case, she supposed, you had dialed the wrong number by mistake.
"Knut. I was wrong. You were absolutely right."
"Well, that's an improvement. Maybe no more accurate, but much better than being an arrogant motherfucker."
She laughed. "Well, you're that, too."
He laughed. Whatever the man's faults, he could laugh at himself. "Anyway, the question stands. What help am I allowed to give you? You're not begging, you know. You're not even asking. You rejected my offers, but I didn't withdraw them. Except a few that have expired. You can't come to dinner last Monday, but that isn't a withdrawn invitation. I'll shut up." He did.
"I think I followed that."
"Sounds like a woman who reads essays written for high school English classes."
She laughed. "You were better than that."
"Damned with faint praise. Anyway, what help am I allowed to give you? A ride to the store Sunday?"
"I have Billy this weekend."
"He's been in the car before. I don't know how he would behave in the store."
"I don't know what I can afford."
"Do you have enough to last until you get more money? Because, if you don't, I could front you the cash. That's only because you've rejected my paying for it. I am perfectly willing to do that. But, if your independence is better served with a loan, I'll go that route."
"I'll look." If the alternative was sending her son to school without breakfast and carrying no lunch, she'd beg in the streets. Was Knut so bad?
"And, since you have him home and we didn't eat out last Saturday, would you be my guests this Saturday? 'Becca would be along, of course."
"I'll think about it."
"Or Sunday," he offered. "Time would be a problem. I don't want Billy having to go in the restaurant again. I don't like that restroom. The whole street is like that. Food to die for; restrooms to die from."
"You have a great laugh," he said. "A ... Let's keep this on a friendly note."
"I was censoring myself. A little late."
"Tell me what you thought," she asked. Now she'd go crazy trying to figure out what he was going to say.
"You won't get mad?"
"I'll get mad if you don't tell me."
"I was going to say that you have a sexy laugh. Can't be the first time you've heard that. Sorry. Should have kept the thought to myself." He did sound a little guilty. Worse things could be said about her -- worse things had been said about her laugh.
"Well, I'll leave it at that. Forgiveness is a virtue; don't want to drain yours dry."
Now, she was getting really curious. "What is the next thing I'm expected to forgive you."
"'Expected' is a strong word. I was hoping you'd forgive me about the crackers. I should forget them, but they're apparently favorites of Billy's and they're just taking up room in my cupboard."
"They were on sale, then I couldn't get them out then and still follow 'Becca up your stairs in time."
"You got crackers for me?" The man was impossible.
"They were on sale." That was hardly a reason. "Look, I thought of the crackers first. You know you would be buying them later, when they're not on sale. Then, having thought of that, I thought of what I knew you'd both eat and would feed you in an emergency. I thought of the rice. They don't go together; I know that. I was just acting off the top of my head."
"Well, you were thinking of me."
"Then I can bring them over."
"You can bring them over."
"Front door." What should she do when he tried to kiss her. She had forgiven him, but had she forgiven him that much? When he rang the doorbell, she buzzed him up. He handed the package over and took his leave. He didn't try to kiss her at all.
Billy had crackers and peanut butter for dinner. She didn't feel up to a dinner with Knut. Sunday, he called her from his car, and picked her and Billy up at the back door. Knut went through the checkout line first and asked the cashier to ring up the two carts separately and then add them together. That wasn't company procedure. "Fifty dollars back, then." The fifty more than covered her purchases. "Why don't you take the change?" he asked. "That way, you'll owe me an even fifty, and you'll have a little money in your pocket for EL fare." She did it that way.
Fred called Thursday. "You had Billy two weeks in a row. I have my car back, now. I should have him this weekend."
"Fred, I had Billy because you had no way to pick him up. This is my weekend. And you still owe me this month's support."
"Now, Doll, that isn't my fault. I had to get my car fixed. I didn't have any choice."
"We are talking about your responsibility." 'Fred's responsibility' sounded like a contradiction in terms. "You are supposed to pay me the support on the first of the month. It's not something you drop in my tin cup if you have it left over."
"Now, Doll. Don't be a nag. We're not married any more."
"You owe it." But he didn't seem to hear her.
She and Knut kept a civil relationship. He asked her and Billy out to dinner once more. She said, "No thank you."
Her phone rang that Tuesday evening. "Mrs. Jenkins?"
"This is 'Becca -- Rebecca Gustafson." As opposed to all the other preteen girls who called her. Still, 'Becca didn't deserve the criticism. She had to put up with her father, after all.
"Could Billy come over again for hamburgers tomorrow night? You're invited, too."
"Thank you, Rebecca. I'm sure he'll be delighted."
"I'm going to cook the vegetables this time. Does he like green beans?"
"Green beans would be fine."
"'Cause we could have peas, but that's what we had last time."
"He'll be there. Six-thirty?"
"Six-thirty. Are you coming too?"
"I'm afraid I won't be able to make it."
"That's too bad."
So Knut fed Billy one more time, and brought him back. Again, he stood at the bottom of the stairs until Billy was safe in the door. Again, he didn't even try for a kiss.
The first weekend that Fred took Billy, she did her income tax. The school district withheld the standard amount; so had her summer employer. That somehow added together to more than she owed. She mailed in the form with a prayer.
Knut drove her to the store that Sunday. He asked whether she needed to borrow any more. "I'll never be able to pay that back," she said.
"Well, don't worry about it. Just warn me if you need more; I might not have it on me. I can always get fifty over from the store, and more than that from the bank on a day's warning."
But she didn't need it. The next pay period rolled around. She didn't have enough to pay him back but she had enough to feed her family.
Fred came through with the March support payment. The IRS came through a few weeks later. She took the check to the bank and got sixty dollars in cash back from the deposit. The rest would more than cover April's rent, and she would make a point of paying that early. The refund usually covered her extra summer expenses. Well, this year, she'd have to be more careful. And Fred did owe her February's check.
"Don't start the car yet," she said while Knut was loading up the trunk with his purchases and hers. After handing her in and checking Rebecca's seat belt, he climbed in himself. Instead of inserting the key, he turned to her and raised an eyebrow. She handed him a fifty dollar bill. "You don't know how much that meant these weeks."
He showed the bill to Rebecca. "Mrs. Jenkins has paid her debt in full. You're a witness." He hadn't made a point of having a witness when she contracted the debt. After putting the bill away in his wallet, he put the key in the dashboard and looked at her again. She nodded and he drove them home. He took the heavier bag once again. He always did that. Well, he always did that when he wasn't carrying a secret bag of rice.
When they had each put their bags down, he said, "Now you don't owe me anything at all." He obviously wasn't considering the rice and the crackers. But what she really owed him was the ability to deal with the uncertainties. She hadn't taken more money from him, but she had quieted her jitters -- several times -- by telling herself that it was available.
"Knut, I owe you loads. Not only the money. I always will."
"Does that mean that I'll never be allowed to kiss you again?"
"Huh?" The man could throw curve balls.
"I couldn't kiss you when you owed me money, 'cause you would have thought of yourself as a kept woman." Had she said that? Not quite.
"Knut, stand there." While he stood there, she hugged him fiercely. He bent down to kiss her. Their tongues met. The kiss seemed to go on forever. It seemed to end much too soon.
"Oh Sarah!" he said before heading down to his car.
He called that night, though. "This is Knut Gustafson. Is this an okay time to talk?"
"I don't want blanket permission. I want to know whether this interrupts something important."
"It interrupts housework, thank God."
"I'll take that as permission," he said. 'Permission' was a mild term for what she felt. "Look, we need to work out a code. Hows about, when you think I've gone too far, you don't clam up; you don't shut me out? Hows about when I go too far, you just slap my face?"
She laughed. "Oh, Knut. You are impossible. I won't slap your face." Would he take that as permission for doing anything? Did she want him to? "I won't unless I really need to. Tell you what. When I think you've gone too far, I'll tell you so."
"That would work, too. Would it be going too far to ask you out to dinner?"
"That would be fine."
"You have Billy Saturday? If I'd had one brain cell, I wouldn't have given you rice. All I could think of was what I'd seen the two of you eat. But that makes the restaurant less special."
"My rice doesn't compete with theirs. For one thing, I don't fix sweet and sour shrimp with it."
"You don't? Anyway, five-thirty at your front door? Saturday."
"That would work."
"Then it's a date. How have you been otherwise?"
And she told him about the week. "Well," she finished up, "I don't know if those kids will ever learn what a declarative sentence is, but it was a solid week of work and not that far from here."
"Not that far? Don't you have to take two EL trains?"
"Well, yes. But I can switch downtown, so I don't have to pay for a transfer. It's still faster than two buses and an EL train -- much faster. And I can work on the train most of the time. Buses are hell for doing that sort of work."
"I'm happy for you." He really did sound happy.
Billy was happy to see Knut again. Maybe he was just happy to be in The Chinese Lantern again. Knut reacquainted him with chopsticks and then looked speculatively over at her. "I won't slap your face," she said. He held her hand while shaping them to hold the sticks. Then all of them turned to their plates.
The food was good; the pleasure of the company was better; anticipation of the end of the evening was best of all. Once back in the apartment, she took Billy's coat first. She hung it and her own up before asking him if he needed to use the bathroom. Knut's coat was still on, but unzipped. He held her as he kissed her. Their tongues tangled until the bathroom door banged open. After a little polite talk, Knut took his leave.
She worked Monday and Tuesday. When she didn't get a call for Wednesday, she took that time to plan some of her future. Planning for the year was too scary when it looked like she'd go broke at the end of the week.
Her relationship with Knut was going fine; the same couldn't be said for her relationship with Fred. Fred didn't see the moral obligations which everybody else did, at least he didn't see them as applying to himself. He barely saw the legal obligations. But those could be enforced. She called up her lawyer.
"Raymond, Gallagher, and Kelly."
"Mr. Brand, please. This is Sarah Jenkins calling. He handled my divorce." She waited while somebody in the office dug up the file and put it on Brand's desk. There was no way the man could keep track of all his former clients, and she wasn't paying him her day's salary per hour to speak off the top of his head. The polite fiction, though, was that he remembered her and her case perfectly.
"Yes, Mrs. Jenkins."
"My husband is way behind in his support payments. Can you get a garnishment on his wages?"
"The short answer is yes. Why do you want a garnishment?"
Stupid question. He hadn't seemed to be a stupid man. "So I can get the money which is due me."
"You can get the money which is due this time -- if it's not too much -- with a garnishment. You can get the support payments paid directly to you by his employer, instead. If what you want is the money, I'd recommend that route. It's reopening an old case, and divorce courts are used to that. A garnishment is a new case in a different court." He wasn't a stupid man.
"That sounds better. Sorry, I asked you the wrong question."
"That's more of the lawyer's work than appearing in court. We can't do anything for you that you can't do for yourself; we do know what can be done. Sometimes, that is critical."
She stopped worrying and turned to her housework. She worked again Thursday and Friday. When Fred came Friday, he sent Billy down to the car first. He wanted a conversation that Billy wouldn't hear. Had he heard about the claim on his employer already? Well, she wasn't going to withdraw it; she already owed Brand for his time.
"Doll, have you thought about when you're going to let me make up the time I missed with Billy?" She'd thought about it; she'd told him her decision. It was his fault he'd missed his time.
Then she thought again. "I'll compromise. Maybe I'll compromise." She hadn't run this by Brand; maybe it would be too much trouble to raise in court. "I won't let you have him three weekends in a row, but maybe I'll let you have him two weekends in a row. After that we would switch weeks. Would you go along with that?"
"That's what we'll do."
"That's what we'll check with the lawyers to see what it would take."
She almost told Knut her plan when they went shopping Sunday, but there were too many ifs involved. She called Brand from school Monday, but he was busy. Tuesday, she called again; he said it was reasonable and he'd go ahead with it. "The court is going to look favorably on almost anything the two of you agree on."
Knut took her and Billy to dinner Saturday. Again, it was a pleasant time. "Look out," Knut said on the drive back, "the rush season at work for individuals is coming up. I'll take you to the store Sunday, but not the next time. Buy what you need; I'll lend you the cash again, if you want. I'll be lucky to get 'Becca to church that week."
"Sounds rugged." Knut seemed to put church -- at least Rebecca's going to church -- high on his priority list.
"It's fairly tight, but it's brief." The same could be said for his hug while Billy was in the bathroom.
She thought about it, and called Wednesday night. "During your time at the office,..."
"I could cook a good deal more than hamburgers when I was in the sixth grade."
"Not while I'm in the office. Rebecca's not going to turn on the stove when she's in the house alone." Which didn't sound promising.
"But I'll be home and Rebecca will be home. Why don't you let her mother have her?"
"Candice has alternate weekends scheduled for flights. Canceling would be too much trouble."
"Well, I'd be available. I could teach her how to cook meatloaf or something. If you approve, I could offer to teach her. This Sunday would be a good time to bring it up."
"That's a great idea. Thanks, I'll tell her."
"No you won't! I was running it past you before I brought it up with Rebecca. She's the person who would be learning, she's the person to whom I'll make the offer. You have to make some decisions for your daughter, Knut. I wouldn't ask her to let me in -- much less turn on the stove -- without your permission. But you don't make all the decisions for her. Honestly! It's a wonder she has any backbone -- living with you." And Rebecca had plenty of backbone.
"Triumph of heredity over environment. I don't run her life; girl runs mine. Okay. I don't accept for her. I do allow you to ask her -- and to do it when she accepts. Aside from appreciating you, 'Becca is mad about cooking. Teach her to cook meatloaf and she'll love you forever. Well, love you until you cross her, which is as good as I get."
And, that Sunday in the car on the way to the store, she did ask Rebecca. "Oh, Mrs. Jenkins. That would be super!"
"Should we buy the stuff now?" asked Knut.
"It's a little early to buy meat. Rebecca, what do you think? We could go to the store just the two of us and buy everything we need. Shopping for the meal is part of preparation."
"I'd like that," said Rebecca.
"I might not provide presence," Knut said, "not that either of you seem to want my presence. But I can provide the cash. Will $20 cover it?"
"It would be much too much."
"Better too much than too little." And, in the car before heading back, he handed her a twenty. He let out Rebecca and his frozen food first. Then he climbed up her back stairs, put her groceries on the counter, and kissed her thoroughly. He left her blouse buttoned, but one arm was hugging her and the other hand was stroking her clad breast when someone honked from the alley. "Damn it all," said Knut, but he went down.
He called her Monday night. "Are we on for the restaurant next Saturday?" That wasn't quite taking her for granted, but it wasn't the most polite way to ask. On the other hand, he had established a pattern of including Billy -- and of taking her shopping when Billy was gone.
She worked in one school all that week -- and teaching English, for a wonder. The meal was enjoyable and drawn out. The kiss was more enjoyable, but much briefer.
The next week, she worked all over the city, but she did work every day. That would build up her savings when the next check came through. So she was in a good mood when she knocked on Knut's door that Saturday. "Mrs. Jenkins," Rebecca greeted her, "do you want to go now?"
"Do you mind showing me your kitchen?"
"Dad would string me up by my toenails if I didn't." She showed Sarah the pots and pans, and then the spices. They started off together, Rebecca wheeling the cart.
"Um, Rebecca," Sarah began, "your father wouldn't really hang you by your toes would he?"
Rebecca laughed. "Toenails, in a dark closet. I tell him I will play I'm a bat. We read all about bats one week before he threatened that." Then she changed the topic as drastically as Billy ever had. "What's quarter?"
"I think it's mercy to somebody who surrenders. Why?" Or did she mean rooms for troops?
"Well, once he threatened to hang draw and quarter me. But then he wouldn't tell me what it means."
"You don't take those threats seriously?"
"Would you? Now, when he threatens to spank me if I go on, he'll do it. He has. But hanging by my toenails in a dark closet is a silly threat, and he means it to be silly. If I'd said 'No; you can't come up now,' you wouldn't have told him, would you?"
"Probably not." This was getting serious; she wanted to make friends with his girl, but did Rebecca want her to keep secrets from Knut?
"So, how would he punish me? But what does quarter mean?"
"Hanging, drawing, and quartering, was an old -- and especially vicious -- punishment for treason in England. Your dad's right; I'm not going to be specific. He wouldn't do it. He was just making exaggerated threats and got carried away." And, of course, the threats were for his own benefit if he didn't want her to know what it meant. Still, Knut's imagination was remarkably gory.
She gave Rebecca the shopping list and one cart. She did her own shopping in another. Then she checked over Rebecca's purchases. She'd brought an envelope and put the cash-register tape and the change from Knut's 20 in the envelope. Rebecca wheeled Sarah's small cart except up and down curbs.
Rebecca did all the cooking except adding a few spices. Sarah directed, but Rebecca's were the hands. Then Rebecca watched TV while Sarah cooked the other parts of their supper. They put a generous serving of everything in the refrigerator for Knut. She gave Rebecca the envelope before going home. "Give this to your father; it's the change. Next time, I'll show you how to deal with the dishes; that's less fun."
"You're not kidding!"
Knut called from the office the next day. "Thank you for everything," he said. "I had a supper late last night, and packed a meatloaf lunch for today."
"You're welcome. Rebecca's a nice girl."
"That she is. And you're a nice woman." And on that pleasant note they ended the conversation.
She had to stay away from school Wednesday for the court hearing. Fred interrupted his lawyer to explain why skipping the February check wasn't his fault. The judge was unsympathetic. "Mr. Jenkins, you had more bills than you could pay that month. Either the car-repair bill would be late, or your rent payment would be late, or the support payment would be late. I understand that. What you don't understand is that the support payment is a court order. You need to pay that first."
"I need the car to get to work."
"Mrs. Jenkins seems to get all over the city on public transportation. Well, if you don't understand legal obligations, I'm sure your employer will.... You want this change in visitation?"
"I missed three weeks. A father needs to see his boy."
"Yes or no?"
"Yes, your honor. I want the change."
"So ordered. And the support to be drawn from the employer also ordered."
And that was it.
She even worked the next two days. By Sunday, Knut's rush seeming to be over, he took her to the store again. "Sorry about last week," he said. "Everybody has to work extra on these crucial times."
Whatever comparisons she'd made to Fred were unfair. Fred didn't see a court order as much of an obligation. Knut saw an established pattern of doing favors as some sort of obligation. "No problem," she said. "I'm just glad I could take up a little of the slack."
"More than that. I couldn't teach 'Becca to cook like that. I'm a survival cook; we go out for anything good." She wasn't sure that meatloaf qualified as 'anything good' from the perspective of a man who thought grade-school children needed to be exposed to a variety of restaurants. On the other hand, he was probably tired of Rebecca's hamburgers.
The kiss at the end of the afternoon was hot. Knut left with "'Becca will be wondering where I am." Well, next time she wouldn't be around to wonder.
When Knut called on Tuesday, he asked, "Can you and Billy go out to the Chinese Lantern Saturday?"
She sprang her surprise. "Billy can't. He'll be with his father that weekend."
"Then can you?" Knut sounded happy.
"I'd be pleased." And she'd better be prepared, as well. Knut would bring her back here. How far would he want to go? How far would she let him go? She wasn't a high-school girl any more; why was she thinking like one? She hadn't needed her diaphragm since the divorce, but she'd better wear it Saturday. She'd need to get spermicide again, too. Contraception was the woman's responsibility; that was one of the few things she and Fred had always agreed on.
In the tub an hour later, her imagination was less practical -- but it was much more colorful.
She stopped at a drugstore Wednesday. Thursday, Knut called again. "The Chinese Lantern is a fine place, but what I'm really looking forward to is your company. The Turkish place wasn't a success, it's been a while since the Middle Eastern place. Should we go back there? Should we stick to The Chinese Lantern? Should I surprise you?"
"Surprise me! But what should I wear?"
"Don't hand me straight lines like that when I'm trying to be a gentleman."
Silly! "Then what will you be wearing?"
"An ordinary business suit." Then the blouse she'd bought so long ago wouldn't be way out of line -- though she wasn't at all sure Knut wouldn't wear a suit to a picnic. And the front- closing bra would go with the blouse.
"5:30 again? I'll have my car."
Since Saturday was dry, she didn't wear a coat. Knut said, "I'm impressed," when he saw her outfit.
The restaurant was Korean, and her clothes fitted in with the other Western women's. There were also several Korean customers, and Sarah envied the look of those women's dresses. She envied the look more than the feel, suspecting that they might be uncomfortable to wear.
The meal was delicious, and the conversation cheerful. The talk continued for the drive home, up the stairs, and into her apartment. Since she hadn't been able to think of just the words for inviting him in, she just kept telling him about her week as she opened the door. He followed her in. "Thanks for coming," he said once she'd finished her latest anecdote from school.
"Thanks for inviting me." He kissed her then, a long romantic kiss. At the end, he let go of all of her but her left hand. He followed her as she backed up to the sofabed. When she sat down, he sat down with her. He cuddled her before resuming the kiss.
He fumbled around the back of her bra before breaking the kiss to look. When he used his eyes, though, he got it open. "Oh, Sarah," he said. His next kisses were to her breasts. Soon, he'd put blouse and bra on the back of the sofabed. His suit coat went on his end.
He didn't remove any more clothes from either one of them immediately, merely loosening his tie. He went back to kissing her mouth. His tongue played tag with hers while his hands caressed her breasts. Then he was kissing both breasts while he stroked her thighs through her pantyhose. He eased her back on the sofabed while still kissing her. Then he knelt on the floor beside her.
His mouth was on her right nipple and his hand was back under her skirt. As she spiraled higher, she held his head. His suction and his strokes on her vulva were what she needed, just what she needed.
She did grunt this time when she went over; she heard herself. Knut said, "Billy's way across town. Nobody can hear you but me. And I love you."
He kissed all over her face, her ear, her neck, her shoulder, her arm. He kissed her left breast and licked her nipple. Then he kissed down her torso. When his hands went under her skirt this time, he reached for the waist of her pantyhose. "Help me with this," he said. She raised her hips, and he drew the pantyhose down. Her panties came with them and stayed around her knees. He drew each leg of the pantyhose off, and then got the panties.
When he'd put them all on the back of the sofabed, he kissed back up her torso. The kisses on the navel tickled, but those on her breasts were gentle and sweet. They were arousing as well, or maybe that was his hand on her bare thigh. As he sucked her left nipple, his hand stroked up to her vulva. A thrill ran through her. "Oh, Sarah," he said.
Then his mouth returned to her nipple. She clutched him to her as she spiraled upward. It was wonderful; it was delightful. As she went over, it was heaven.
Then it was too much. She pushed his arm away. He held each of her hands in one of his and waited while she came back to earth. He was sitting on the floor beside the sofabed, peaceful company. As he was no longer stimulating her, she must have dozed off. She woke to feel him shifting. He went off opening doors.
"Love you," he said when he came back. He leaned over to kiss her on the forehead, then gave a real kiss. He picked up his suit coat and went out the door. He couldn't go! But when he had, she sank back down in sleep.
She woke, cramped and cold, sometime in the middle of the night. She managed to finish undressing, put on the track suit, and pull out the bed. When she next awoke, it was nearly 10:00. She had nowhere to go; it was Sunday, and Billy was with his father; but still, it was awfully late for her to wake up.
She felt wonderful, though. She ate breakfast in her track suit, and took a long bath. Not even the remaining housework daunted her. After all, Billy had been gone the previous weekend, as well. But she did have to do laundry, she didn't have three weeks of clean clothes.
When she got back, the phone was ringing. When she picked up, Knut said, "This is Knut. Is this a bad time?"
"No, but let me get the door." She dragged in the cart loaded with half her normal supply of laundry and shut the door. She plopped down into a chair before picking up the phone again. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. I just wanted to tell you that you are a beautiful woman with a delightful personality and a remarkably kissable abdomen. I had a marvelous time last night."
"I had a marvelous time, too." As he had probably heard at the time. Had she really grunted?
"I'm glad. Partially because I love you and want you to enjoy yourself. You strike me as always looking out for Billy's benefit, and -- after all -- if you don't, who will? That's too complicated. But since all your attention is to his pleasure, somebody else needs to see to yours. I'm appointing myself to that office.
"But, even more," he continued, "I'm glad because -- if you enjoy yourself with me -- then you'll be willing to be with me more often. And that's my summum bonum. Did I say that right?"
Probably not. Shouldn't it be bonem? On the other hand, compliments -- even mispronounced compliments -- were nice to hear. "Knut, you're going to give me a swelled head."
"Not a danger. Well, you sound busy. I'll let you go."
"Goodbye." She hadn't needed a brightener this afternoon, even for folding and putting away clothes, but that call was a brightener indeed.
Fred, despite all his demands, didn't look as though he'd enjoyed himself when he brought Billy back. Billy didn't look overjoyed either, but he didn't sulk about his bath.
Knut called Monday after Billy was in bed. "I didn't just call to say 'I love you,' even though I do. Is this a good time?"
"It's always a fine time to talk to you."
"Not always, and you should tell me when it isn't." That led to a thought.
"You never call in the mornings," she said.
"Should I? I thought getting yourself and Billy ready...."
"No you shouldn't. That's what your comment about bad times brought to mind. If Billy's having a tantrum or dinner is boiling over on the stove, I can tell you 'later' or simply not answer. The morning is when I get calls from the sub center. I have to answer, and -- if you call, and I say 'not now,' and they don't call that morning -- then I'll never know whether they called then and got a busy signal. So, if you want to know a good time not to call -- a bad time to call -- it's mornings of school days."
"I'll remember that. Anyway, aside from saying that you're beautiful and adorable, which can't be said too often, I had an actual subject to discuss. Billy will be home next weekend?"
"So will 'Becca. What do you think of her inviting the two of you to dinner?"
"Do you need to hide behind her skirts?"
"Her apron. She wants to cook meatloaf again."
"Good. This isn't the actual invitation; that will come from her. It's just that I don't want her to get her expectations up and then not met. And I don't want her to call when Billy can hear and have him hear you refuse."
"Sometimes kids have to hear that things are impossible."
"Oh yes! And 'Becca hears that a lot. It's just that, what you and I see as impossible, the kid might see as an imposition of the parent's selfish will. Some years ago, I went through that about going to work when 'Becca was home. You know, I only audit those accounts because it's so much fun; if I really loved her, I'd stay home and play with her."
"And you don't think that auditing is that much fun?"
"I'd rather conduct an audit than undergo a root canal. Most days, I'd rather conduct an audit than undergo a root canal. Dentist's visits are another thing I impose on her out of sheer sadism. Anyway,..." There was a pause.
"Anyway, enough about me. How did you feel about my performance?" His performance Saturday night? Then she recognized the punch line from a joke. He went on, "I think we have established several things this conversation. An invitation from 'Becca would be welcome. Eat at six again? Saturday?"
"Both sound fine."
"And will Billy come along on the shopping Sunday?"
Which took for granted that Knut and Sarah would be shopping Sunday, but "Yes. He's not too bad in stores."
"And, as we established early in this conversation, you are a delightful person with a personality as beautiful as your body." Which was nice to hear, if unwise to believe. Technically, of course, he'd only said that her body and her personality were equal, not that either was particularly beautiful. Zero was equal to zero. But that wasn't what he'd meant, and he was in pursuit of her body.
But was he? Her body had been available Saturday. He might not have guessed how available, although cooperating with his removal of her undergarments was a fairly obvious hint. He just hadn't tried. Well, he didn't sound uninterested.
And he'd said he loved her. Did she love him? What did that mean?
She liked being with him, certainly; his conversation, when it wasn't utterly infuriating, was charming and entertaining. She lusted after him, too; his fingers could evoke feelings from her body that the shower couldn't. His mouth could evoke even more feelings. If she didn't know what feelings his phallus could evoke, she was eager to find out. And she was beginning to respect him. He might be a little too controlling as a parent, but the results spoke well of him.
She really didn't understand what he did for work, but people who presumably did thought well enough of it to pay him highly. He was unfailingly generous. And thoughtful -- the Christmas card had been thoughtful.
But did all of that up to "love"?
Rebecca called Tuesday. "Could you and Billy come to our house Saturday to eat meatloaf?"
"Why, thank you, Rebecca. It's kind of you to ask."
"I was kind of you to teach me. I'm glad you can come. Six o'clock, Saturday." She sounded excited. It might be her father's idea to bring the four of them together, but grade- schoolers couldn't hide their emotions.
Knut called again Thursday. "Nothing new to say. Just thought you might need reminding that you are a lovely woman."
"Knut! You're going to give me a head so swelled it won't fit through the door."
"I'll stop when you begin to appreciate your real worth. That looks like it will take a while." The conversation didn't get any more serious than that, but it did lighten her mood. She was working every day that week too. Her savings inched up to cover the problems in the summer.
The dinner Saturday was fine. The meatloaf was slightly overdone, and the peas slightly underdone. Knut cooked (packaged) mashed potatoes, and fixed the salad. Afterwards, he set up a video for the kids and went into the kitchen to wash dishes. She joined him. He rinsed everything before putting it in the dishwasher. "Doesn't that reduce the advantage of having a dishwasher?" she asked.
"Hey! I don't wear suspenders with my belt. Be grateful for small things." She laughed. "You have a sexy laugh," he said.
"You'll make me self conscious."
"Now, that is a problem. Threaten me with your head swelling all you want, it'll never happen. But I don't want you to be self conscious about the sexy things you do. You might stop doing them."
"Knut!" She glanced towards the living room.
"Lost in 'Sleeping Beauty' for the umpteenth time for 'Becca. But come here and I'll stop saying things which can be overheard." She walked into his arms, knowing that it would lead to a kiss. For that matter, she wanted the kiss.
"Listen," he whispered later, "while they can't hear. Billy was real nice about this...." She thought their hosts had been nicer. "But, someday soon, he'll figure out that visiting our place is going to mean that he won't eat sweet and sour shrimp as often." Well, she had gotten carry-outs before they'd met Knut. And the support check would be more regular now.
"That shouldn't be a problem."
"But it might be an opportunity. What would you think of a restaurant meal for the four of us some week night?"
"Knut! You're impossible." Was the man made of money?
"After the divorce, I thought things out." His voice was lower now than it had been before. "'Becca needs some things -- talking only about what money can buy, now -- and she enjoys other things. I enjoy some things, and -- I suppose -- you could list things which are necessary for me. Why spend money on the rest? I need a car which works. Well, I enjoy a car which works; you seem to get around without one. But I don't need a car with the latest styling. Why should I buy a new car before this one wears out? Suits from the racks fit me just fine. I've lived in a big house in the 'burbs; thank you very much. My landlord mows the lawn now. One thing I enjoy, we both enjoy, is eating out. Another thing I enjoy, though I didn't know it then, is your company. Why shouldn't I have both?"
"You make yourself sound like a sybarite. That's not what you look like."
"And you make yourself sound like an English teacher, but you look like a beautiful woman. Well, we have to have a deciding vote, come here."
After a long hug and a deep kiss, he said, "Look, feel, and taste like a beautiful woman. Three to one." The kiss took her mind off his contrast between 'beautiful woman' and 'English teacher.' The kiss, some cuddling, some petting, went on until the dishwasher stopped. Knut went out and paused the film. "Bathroom break," he told the kids. "Billy goes first, 'cause he's a guest." When Billy came back, Rebecca went into the bathroom. She showed Knut her hands when she came out. "Okay," said Knut, and started the VCR again. With the reminder, Sarah used the bathroom, too.
A few minutes after the film ended, she and Billy were taking their leave. The next time she spoke to Knut was when he called from his car to say they were on their way. Billy found the shopping trip interesting. Knut checked his seat belt both coming and going, saying "point for Gryffindor," outside their apartment and "two points" outside the grocery store. He'd checked Rebecca's, too.
"I'm surprised you don't trust Rebecca to put on her own seat belt," she commented.
"It's not a matter of trust -- it's a matter of points. Even though I am an auditor."
Rebecca carried his frozen foods up to their apartment. Billy carried theirs. She could have carried her whole purchase; it was only for one week, after all. On the other hand, she wanted Knut's company in her kitchen. When Billy left them alone, Knut kissed her. "More fun without all those coats," he commented as Billy returned. "Love you."
She didn't answer as he ran down the back stairs. She'd been in love once, and no good had come of it -- well, no good except Billy. Knut wasn't Fred, but Sarah was the same Sarah. Did she dare give her heart again? Did she have a choice?
Their dinners at the Chinese Lantern had nearly become rituals. This time, Knut didn't order the pork and didn't 'help' her with her chopsticks. Even Billy took a fortune cookie -- probably Rebecca's influence.
Knut called her up on Thursday. "Is your concentrating on Chinese just Billy's addiction to sweet and sour? Or have you tried Vietnamese and found it didn't appeal to you?"
"I haven't really tried Vietnamese. We don't eat out often; I like Chinese and grew up with occasional visits to Chinese restaurants. When you don't" -- Knut probably knew that she couldn't afford it, but she was still a little nervous about confessing that -- "eat out much, why risk one of those few times on something you might not like?"
"Well, I don't find the cost all that much of a risk. On the other hand, ruining a date with Sarah would be a disaster. On the third hand -- sound like a monkey, don't I? -- on the third hand, we did eat Chinese on Tuesday. The idea I'm not articulating is how would you like to visit a Vietnamese restaurant on Saturday?"
"And did you enjoy 'Airplane'?"
"Never saw it." Billy wouldn't get the jokes, and she hadn't been in the mood for comedy, then -- especially comedy she'd see by herself.
"Well, would you like to see it now? I have it for my VCR."
Knut was in a flannel shirt and khakis when he picked her up. The man wouldn't wear a suit to a picnic, after all. The food was a little different, but also quit pleasant. Knut suggested dishes instead of letting each of them order, but he described things thoroughly. The pot of pho -- which turned out to be a delicious soup -- was larger than the one for egg-drop soup they'd shared with Billy long ago.
They returned to his apartment. The place was clean and straightened up, and the tape was already in the VCR. After a kiss, he sat her down on the couch. He turned off the light and sat very close on her right with his arm around her. He operated the remote with his other hand.
Aside from the privacy, this reminded her of visits to movie theaters in her high-school days. And that seemed to be Knut's idea, as well. He kissed her ear and stroked the outside of her blouse, but he was careful not to obstruct her view. How much attention she could pay was another question. Half way through, though, all the soup she'd consumed had its consequences. "Pardon me," she said as she got up. Knut instantly hit the pause on the remote. When she had used the toilet, she looked at her pantyhose. Why pull them back up when he was just going to pull them down later? Still, she did put herself back together.
"Popcorn?" he asked when she got back.
"Knut, you can't be serious."
"Well we just ate, but popcorn seems to go with movies."
She had eaten long enough ago that the idea appealed. "Do you want my help fixing it?"
"Microwave. I'll just take a second." And he did. When he'd taken his own bathroom break, the microwave beeped. He brought them in a big bowl of the popcorn before clicking the movie back on.
So, except for the bowl where there should have been a bag and the couch where there should have been separate seats, they were teenagers in the last row of the theater.
When the ending credits had rolled, Knut clicked the VCR off and moved the bowl out of their way. He didn't bother to turn on the light, which was just as well. Now that he wasn't afraid of blocking her view, his kisses were deeper. This time, he was deft in unfastening the front closure of her bra. When he lay her back on the couch, she kicked off her shoes. He was kneeling beside her again and kissing her breasts. She was panting and welcomed his hand on her vulva. But he didn't bring her over before he reached for the zipper on the side of her skirt. She helped him with the clasp and then raised her middle as he slid the skirt off. She repeated this for the pantyhose and panties.
His tongue slid between the upper lips as his finger slid between the lower ones. He kissed and stroked her until she neared her peak. Then he kissed down to her right breast and started again. She clutched his head to that breast when she went over.
Then he kissed her forehead while she gasped. His hand rested against her vulva, but he didn't move it. "Sweet Sarah," he said. "Beautiful Sarah, gentle Sarah." When she'd caught her breath, he asked, "Can you walk now?"
At her nod, he helped her up. He led her through a door into his bedroom. The bed had been stripped to the bottom sheet. The room looked as if everything had been hidden away. The single bed had a nightstand on either side. They had matching lamps -- one of them lit, but the only other thing on either one was a box of Kleenex.
He kissed her once before gesturing for her to lie down. The neatness of the room didn't last long as he stripped off shirt, teeshirt, and trousers and let them drop. He turned away before he removed his jockey briefs. When he stretched out to her right on the bed, though, she looked. He was lean, with a little hair on his chest and legs. There was a good deal at his groin. Growing out of that was his phallus. It was circumcised, lean as the rest of him, with a quite prominent head.
He slowly stroked down her left arm and torso. On the return, he cupped her breast. "Oh, darling," he said. He kissed her right breast and then lower. She stopped him when he reached her pubic hair. He kissed a path up to her breast, but his hand stroked her thighs. When she spread her legs, he stroked her vulva.
Her excitement rose. He stroked her, and sucked on her nipples, and stroked her again. The feelings progressed from delight to agony. "Knut," she said.
"I thought you'd never ask." He knelt upright between her legs, looming there with his phallus sticking out. He knocked over the Kleenex box and brought a packet to his waist level. She watched him open the condom and roll it on. He didn't need to do that! But before she could say so, he was leaning over her kissing her on the mouth. She felt his fingers on her vulva parting her lips. Then he was at her entrance. "Love you," he said as he slowly entered her.
She felt stretched. It had been a long time. Knut held himself above her when he was all the way inside. He kissed her forehead. "Darling Sarah," he said. "I've dreamed about this so long, and now it's real."
He shifted his position so that one hand was on her breast and the other on her butt. Then he began moving slowly in and out. She'd dreamed about this, too. At least daydreamed about it.
She smoothed her hands down his back. Her need spiraled upward, and she pressed back against him as he entered her. He moved slowly for the longest time, and then sped up. She felt herself go over the top and heard herself grunt as she did.
"Oh, Sarah," he said. "Oh, darling. Oh, yes!" And he thrust so hard into her that he moved her on the mattress. Was he pulsing inside her or was she pulsing around him? Whichever; it went on forever.
And, when it was over, he said, "Darling." He moved to her left and held her for a few minutes. Then he tossed something over her side of the bed and scrabbled at the foot of the bed. He covered her with the top sheet and with his arm. "Darling," he said again, "Sarah, darling." He reached over her to turn off the light.
Being cuddled in his arms felt right. She fell asleep more contented than she had been in years.
When she woke, he was kissing her hip. Daylight was glistening around the blinds. Luckily, the kisses were through the sheet. He was wearing a robe.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Kissing you. Did you know that you have the loveliest greater trochanters in the world. Well, I haven't seen your greater trochanters, but your shape reveals it."
"I have to get up."
"Want a robe?" He handed her one and turned his back. She tossed it around herself, feeling something light bump against her. When she was done with the toilet, she put the robe on properly. In one pocket was a comb and a toothbrush still in its container. Knut had thought out his seduction quite thoroughly.
Well, who was she to talk? She'd inserted her diaphragm and worn her bra with the front closure, after all. And, if he had planned for her seduction, he had also planned for her comfort. The comb would do until she got back to her apartment for her own brush.
The robe couldn't be Rebecca's, much too large. It couldn't be Knut's, he was wearing one already; and he'd look a little cramped in this one.
"Did you buy this robe for me?" she asked when she came out.
"Yep. What will you have for breakfast? I have eggs, or frozen French toast. I told you; I'm a survival cook. Fry a mean egg, though." Now that he mentioned it, she did feel hungry.
"I usually eat corn flakes."
"Got them, too. You sure you don't want eggs?"
"Sure." She sat down at the kitchen table, and he handed her a bowl and an unopened box of corn flakes. While she got the box open, he got her the milk and a spoon. Suddenly, a thought came to her. "Who eats corn flakes at your house?"
"I'll finish up the box. If I give it to you, it would start a fight."
"You bought the corn flakes for me -- and the robe -- and the comb and toothbrush."
"I see you shop, remember? It's easy enough to guess who eats the Cocoa Puffs.... And I bought the condoms in anticipation of your visit. Whatever you think of me, I don't live the sort of life which requires keeping them always on hand."
"You didn't need to, you know. Contraception is the woman's responsibility. Whatever you think of me, I am a responsible person."
"Well,... First of all, contraception is any adult's responsibility. Second, I don't think last night was time to discuss it. Third, I am an auditor, you know."
"You keep saying that. What do you mean?"
"It keeps being true. I'm an auditor; you're an English teacher. You notice grammar, even when you're not in the classroom. Now, me.... Look, say the Jones Corporation reports a big growth in profit. I certify those reports. You buy some of their stock, but it turns out that this growth was fictitious. You don't say to the treasurer and the rest of the board: 'Well, it's not your fault; Gustafson said that your profit was real based on generally accepted accounting procedures.' You hold them accountable. On the other hand, you hold me accountable, too. (Really, you'd hold Reuben and Metzger accountable; they would hold me accountable.)
"I take a lot of responsibility, but I don't relieve other people of any responsibility. Not the corporate treasurer, not the board, not even my bosses. So, when I use a little contraception or feed Billy, or check his seat belt, I'm not saying that you aren't a responsible mother. I'm saying that I have a responsibility, too. Well, those are different things."
"You feel strongly about that, don't you?"
"Really? Yes. I see people saying all the time: 'It's his responsibility, so it's not mine.' Well, my responsibility at work never relieves anyone else of responsibility. And I am responsible. Not in that way; I'm not 'a responsible man.' I'm responsible that the books I audit are kept according to generally accepted accounting procedures. Or, in the worst case, that I report that they are not."
"Do you ever report that?"
"Not really. When they bring books in to me, everybody knows that the report will come out with my approval. What has happened, and you'll excuse me if I don't name names, is that the report that comes out with my approval shows some different figures than the books they brought in. Even that is rare; it's like your students turning in homework to you. They need the practice, but would they do it if you told them to practice and not turn it in?" There were other reasons for grading homework, but she saw his point.
"You're a strange man. What's this 'great' thing?"
"This morning when I woke up, you said something about a lovely, great, something."
"Greater trochanter. Get up, will you?" When she did, he put his hands on the outside of her hips. "The points of your hips, where you're widest. It's a piece of your thigh bone, men have it, too; but ours isn't thrust out so far. Anyway, yours are especially lovely. Going to let me see them again this morning? Kiss them again? We don't need the sheet." He finished up with a kiss, still holding her hips. She really should brush her teeth! On the other hand, having chosen the time, he was in no position to complain. And the kiss did feel good. When he pulled her tighter against him, however, she felt his erection. This had gone far enough, fun as it had been.
"I really need to get dressed and go home," she told him.
"I knew it! I let her have her way with me, and now she doesn't respect me in the morning."
"Silly. Who said I ever respected you?" God! It was nice to joke with a man again, joke with one after a night of love. "But I do have things to do."
"Okay. Want a shower first?"
"I don't think so. My clothes are probably already dirty."
"All right. Call when you want to go to the grocery store."
The grocery! She'd forgotten. Today might be the start of an affair, but it was also the continuation of a friendship.
The End Alternate Weekends Uther Pendragon firstname.lastname@example.org 2003/09/27 Thanks to Neneh for editing this. These same events from Knut's perspective, can be read in: Knut's Experience Some further adventures of Sarah with Knut: "Life is Complicated" Another story about another couple coping with divorce, albeit only the man's: "On the Rebound" The index to the entire Gjt series is: God Joined Together The index to almost all my stories is: Index to Uther Pendragon's website