Chapter 10

Stephanie evaded Chris' gaze by resting her sights on the pane of glass before them while she spoke. "Not what you wanted to hear, is it? You came to make sure that I'm miserable without you-"

"Not miserable. Never that. Unhappy will do. Without me, I wish you to be unhappy. I'm not the one who's changed. I'm not going to pretend I've grown up for nicety's sake." Chris spoke without remorse or shame, looking her ex-girlfriend over, taking in her reaction by noting her posture and expression.

Stephanie remained unmoved, as if she hadn't heard a word, arms crossed, unsmiling, serene. She was glad Chris still wanted to be the sole proprietor of her happiness. It meant she was still her captive. After a moment's silence she assured her companion, "Your wish has been granted, now what?"

"Now you answer my question. You've had time to come up with something credible." Chris had voiced her inquiry hours earlier, and though Stephanie had thought it over, she hadn't had a chance to reply.

"You really don't know why I asked you here?" Stephanie turned to face her companion. Though her movements were subtle, there was determination in her step, and an eagerness as she uncrossed her arms which caused Chris' muscles to tense up in fright. Stephanie had socked her twice before. Once, for disrespecting her mother, and again, for staggering through the door with dilated pupils, in desperate need of a bath, after disappearing for three days. Now, as before, Chris had failed to retreat, and thus found herself closer to Stephanie than she'd thought she'd ever be again. Not knowing what to expect, she simply stood her ground. Delighting in dominance, Stephanie drew nearer still and muttered, "Fine."

While at first Chris had been paralyzed by nerves and disbelief, she submitted almost immediately, though only half-willingly. Her body became languid under Stephanie's. She had lost touch with fear. She had not however, lost touch with reality. She kept her hands at her sides, impeding their collaboration, and her eyes open, though barely, braced by a strange impulse to not surrender another of her senses to the familiar siren. No matter how thrilling the journey, it was her obligation to resist being pulled towards perdition. Stephanie's forcefulness startled Christabel, who immediately removed herself from her grip. In dismay, she looked at her aggressor's triumphant smile, a perverse response to the question she'd propounded. "An excuse!?" said the petite victim rhetorically, before wiping the corner of her mouth with her right ring-finger. "You need an excuse." Her black eyes large. She looked wounded. Chris wanted to know what feeling to grasp at, but the roulette of emotion spun onward. Vacillating between, anger, shock, and sadness, Chris let herself fall back on to one of the great sofas that so disgusted her. Though she knew she would not be corrected, her heart did not relinquish hope. "To think for one second I believed I was the answer. Like you'd really do that without ulterior motives. I'm such an idiot." Eyes averted, she waited for Stephanie to tell her she was mistaken.

"That isn't it, you know." Stephanie wanted, but did not know how, to excuse her actions. She could not say she was sorry. She was too glad to have retained influence over her, but also envied the tenacity of Christabel's heart.

"Oh, surely you wanted to see if my ass had inflated, if I'd gotten more wrinkles than you, or if I'd outgrown your charms. As you can see I'm as big a fool as ever, and no less handsome."

Stephanie sat across from her. The cool, smooth, marble-toped table felt better than the mammoth polyester upholstered sofas. She could not pass the opportunity to taunt her wiry, pale victim. "Yes, I believe it was you who seduced me. You nymph!"

"I'm sure that's exactly what your husband would believe."

"Which disproves your theory. I couldn't use you as an excuse. His ego is beyond acknowledging you as a threat." Stephanie had taken care not to dull those words with explanations or excuses. She wished them to be sharp. The injury was painful, and it drained every drop of humor out of Christabel. "Is it so hard for you to believe that I miss you?" Stephanie wanted her words to be true. Reciting them might make them so, she had thought, but hearing them didn't do.

Chris interpreted her tone and realized Stephanie wanted to convince herself more than anyone. Though mildly agitated, Chris had grown tired. Mostly, she was hurt and wanted to flee. Christabel left her seat, vacantly staring at her cruel companion as she attempted to bid her good night. "Well, I'm glad I could amuse you. Now, if you'll excuse me-"

"Aren't you going to tell me…why I asked you to come?" With this plea, Stephanie allowed herself to be vulnerable. It was more than guilt that prompted her to offer Chris a clear shot at her, a chance to even the score. She relied on Chris' perspective when she could not find her own. The risk was worth the insight. She knew if she studied Chris' theories thoroughly enough, justified them, deconstructed them, she could also adopt them. It was better, she believed, to make something, anything, of this than to flounder about for meaning, so she waited for her lesson and braced herself for retaliation.

Before Stephanie had ventured to ask, Chris had thought over the possibilities, used insight and instinct, made every calculation, and had arrived at a reasonable answer. She was not tempted to expose the woman she had once adored to the harsh reality of her situation, however. Should Chris betray good intentions and summon the truth to her lips, Stephanie would doubtlessly bear the emotional scar of the injury as a reminder. "You're vain and bored," Chris could have said, " you're incapable of ever being happy because you're fickle. You're bent towards misery because you're broken inside. You asked me here only to test yourself and see if maybe I could spark something resembling contentment in your ungrateful heart, and you did it at the expense of your husband's trust," but Chris chose instead to speak insincerely. With gentle intent, she began, "Tephie-"

"Its been ages since anyone called me that."

"Who else ever called you that?!" Christabel hissed.

"Nobody. No one but you." These soft, reassuring words calmed her fiery companion, who, started again.

"You asked me to come because you wanted to see yourself as you once were. I think you wanted to be her once more. You somehow thought I could help you. I wish I could. I wanted to see her as well. She's gone, though. A kiss can't summon her. Nothing can. I've caught glimpses of her here and there, but there's so much more to you now, and there's only so much you can be all at once. You're a wife, a mother…a woman. I dated a girl, Tephie. A girl. You're so much more now." Chris took a few steps towards the stairs. From atop the creaky first step, she added, "I'm tired of missing her. I came to say goodbye. Its time, Tephie. Let her go." Chris didn't bother to say goodnight. Stephanie remained slumped on the table, eyes glazed, while the pale insomniac climbed. Chris hadn't disappointed her. It was a lie, but it would do.

It was outside the door to her assigned bedroom that Christabel noticed a slender figure ahead. Dawn emerged from the hall that lead nowhere but the master bedroom, and was approaching Chris slowly, hands trembling slightly. As she neared, Chris could see, with the faint light of the moon, bewilderment reflected in her eyes. Chris' stern gaze settled on the girl's face, but Dawn looked away in shame, anticipating interrogation and orders. Before she could utter either, Chris felt herself taken. Her elbows had been gripped, held at her sides forcibly, and she'd been pulled forward slightly to meet Dawn's reckless and frantic advances, to taste Dawn's parted, sliken lips. Chris didn't struggle out of the situation as quickly as she might have if her aggressor had been anything less than stunning, but she wanted to retain some of the emotion she'd been flooded with earlier. It took her a few seconds to recall what that feeling had been. Outrage! Yes, she should be outraged, and this should not be one bit delightful. Such thoughts mingled in her head but for a moment. Soon, the interrupting cough of an ascending observer caused them to separate. Dawn waved her hostess goodnight and stepped into the small bedroom followed by Chris, who was too embarrassed to glance in Stephanie's direction. Shutting the door behind her, Chris quickly made her way to her side of the bed, slipped under the covers, and turned to face the wall, knees tucked against her chest. Dawn was about to say something. Among other things, she wanted to explain that the unsolicited kiss was wrought to prevent her from asking what she was doing in Mike's bedroom within Stephanie's earshot. At the sound of Dawn taking a breath to begin, Chris snapped a command. "Sleep."

Dawn slid under the sheets. Removing the pillow from behind her head and tossing it on the ground. She laid flat looking up, arms across her chest, legs close together. She was careful not to brush against her angered client. She wanted to unburden herself. She wanted to make Chris understand that her intentions had been noble. Bearing the weight of her folly, the girl managed to fall asleep.

Chris did not want to wonder why her escort had gone to him, or what had passed between them, but she didn't want to think about Stephanie either. She chose to occupy her mind with the least upsetting of the two, and spent a considerable amount of time building and tearing down assumptions. None of them however, corresponded with what had actually occurred.

The resolute intruder found herself before him. Dawn could see him clearly. The gentle glow of a nightlight and a streetlamp outside illuminated the room just enough. Michael slept on his stomach, face buried in a pillow, arms cradling his head, a thin white sheet pulled up to his shoulder blades. She sat besides him half a minute. His form pleased her eyes, and, recalling his easy demeanor, she thought about how lucky his wife should, yet didn't, feel. It displeased her to lose focus, thought, so wiping her timid smile away, she proceeded. Slowly she peeled down the sheet, managing to rouse him. He turned, opening his eyes sluggishly, blinking a couple of times before noticing who was sitting next to him. His eyebrows furrowed when he made her out. He turned his head towards his wife's side of the bed, but saw no one. "Any moment my wife is going to come in and find a girl seated in her bed besides her half-naked husband. This is bad!" thought Michael. In haste, he got up. Reaching into the laundry basket by the chest of drawers, he grabbed a shirt and threw it on. Though he had created a safer distance between them, any distance could implicate him so long as he and the damsel remained alone in any bedroom. Hurriedly he spoke a half-whisper. "You should not be here." She rose, attempting to approach, but it made him step back. In turn, she just stood there while he made his demand. "Just go, okay? I'll go out there with you. In the hall, we can talk about this."

"Talk? Talk about what?" Dawn spoke softly but above a whisper; the sound of rain competing with her voice.

"About why you're here."

"I'm not here to talk." Though she did not let it show, Dawn was mildly confused. Had they not been flirting all night? His wife was not in sight, and though his fear of being discovered was entirely justified, he acted as though he were dealing with an armed robber. Could he not find it in his libido to escort her out forcibly? He certainly looked the type. She wouldn't mind being led out by this handsome brute. If they came in contact, she could use his firm grasp as a pivot on which to turn the situation in her favor.

Mike might not have had the malice to understand the complexity of Dawn's manipulative plot, but he was able to distinguish right from wrong. This might not have been clear or relevant to a lesser man, but to a man of integrity it was quite enough to go by. Escorting the girl out by the arm was not an option, specially because she was, as far as he could tell, wearing nothing more than a t-shirt.

"Your wife isn't coming up for a while. She's down there, with my girlfriend." Dawn thought arousing a bit of jealousy might lower his guard and, with luck, make him more amiable. She'd already caught him stealing glimpses of her frame, though he tried hard to look only in her eyes.

"Nothing is going on, I'm sure. They're talking, that's all."

In response to his guess, the girl took a few calculated steps. She went in the general direction of the door, but had managed to wondered a bit closer to him. Caution told her to pause at a prudent distance until he was comfortable enough to be seized. From her post, she persisted. "What makes you so sure they're just talking?"

"Well, if you're concerned…why aren't you down there watching your girlfriend?"

"I'd rather be up here." Dawn ogled him as she spoke, hoping the light would illuminate the trail of her gaze.

"Did you stop to think about what your girlfriend would do if she knew what you were up to?"

Dawn had thought of the negative repercussions her actions would have on Chris, but, unlike Mike, Dawn had learned to survive in a world of immorality and chaos, where any means necessary to attain what one desires is perfectly acceptable. In this world, the border dividing what is from what isn't proper adjusts accordingly. If she succeeded, the good would outweigh the bad, which doubled her resolve. She was running out of time. She tried to close the distance between herself and her target once more, but in vain. This time he'd opened the door to the hall, and stood out of her way, humorless and resolute. Dawn was now having to assimilate what was happening. She was being turned down. A man was resisting her advances. What's more, it seemed he declined her less out of fear, and more out of disinterest.

She was petrified. All but her eyes, which darted left and right, froze while she absorbed the force of the blow. Mike observed the girl he thought he knew, and proceeded to make assumptions. He knew that, to a pretty girl, to a frail and innocent creature not yet acquainted with heartache or love, the disparagement of a crush could be shocking and cruel. He wanted to comfort her somehow, reassure her. When she came to, she focused her eyes on Mike for a second, then turned away, wordlessly walking out of his bedroom. Thankfully, she seemed too demoralized to be embarrassed, giving Michael license to speak. He waited for her to stand a few feet from the door before stopping her, though he did not move in her direction. "Hey," he said, "Listen, I know why you came. It's flattering but…I think there's more to it than just…you know. Maybe I helped you realize something about yourself." Dawn turned to face him, unsure of what he meant. "What I'm saying is, you're living a lifestyle that doesn't suit you. It might suit other girls…women. It had to have had its appeal, doing whatever it is you girls do." Mike blushed when he realized what he'd said. Dawn's eyebrows raised before smiling in amusement. He was not discouraged however, and carried on. "Maybe you needed the experience. I don't know. But…I do know this, if it made you happy, you wouldn't have come. The question is, are you happy, Dawn?" For a moment she distorted the meaning of his words, and her smile faded. Her career, which had become a way of life, came into focus while his words echoed in her mind. What he said gave Dawn the sort of insight she might not have been able to reflect upon if it had been meant as a direct assault on her choices. "It might seem easy to carry on as you have been, but you'll just be breaking hearts. You should come to your senses before someone…before you get hurt. Don't you want to fall inlove? With a boy your age, I mean."

Dawn wanted to focus on anything but what he'd told her just then, and attempted to distract herself with a lesser truth. "You're not that much older than me."

"Yes, I am."

"Shouldn't I choose for myself? I'm perfectly legal, I assure you." She was about to cry, but the stream of tears never ensued. There was no escaping somber contemplation.

"That's not the point. Yes, if I was fifteen years younger, and Stephanie didn't exist…I mean, you'd be way out of my league, but I'd give it a shot. There, you happy now? Allow me to reassure you. If I could-"

"You can! I'd oblige. It would be my pleasure." By now Dawn knew there was nothing she could say to lure him, but was doing her best all the same. If he disappointed her by giving into her advances it might prove that there was nothing good left in the world, no reason to regret her lifestyle. If he gave in, it meant there was no "boy her age" worth escaping for.

"Okay, we're done. Off to bed." With this, Mike played the paternal role. Waving her away, he shut the door before she had a chance to play the part of the needy daughter seeking a goodnight kiss.

Dawn turned away slowly, trembling as if she were cold. He hadn't let her down, and it ached. At the sight of Chris, who was making her way towards their assigned bedroom, she paused. She wanted to wait for Chris to enter. She could cover up with a lie, and Chris would never suspect where she'd been. Dawn thought Chris saw her in the shadows however, and thus emerged to face the consequence of her actions.

Mike evaded most of the puddles scattered about the silent streets of his suburban territory. He did not hear a single mower mowing, nor saw a single car cruising while he ran. The sun hid behind great white clouds. It was an unusually tranquil morning. Mike slowed his pace before reaching his driveway. Drenched in sweat, breathing hard, he took a few seconds to enjoy the breeze before commencing his cool down. As he held each stretch, he marveled at the beauty parked before him. Driving it had been thrilling. It was no wonder Dawn had agreed to date Chris, he observed.

It was late, even for a Sunday, and the others, he assumed, would soon wake. He climbed the stairs and passed his son's bedroom, but something stopped him and forced him to turn around. Curiosity had taken him. He lingered outside the room he'd offered his guests. For a moment he only faced the door, but then he turned his head to one side, eyes towards the floor, quiet as a mouse, a mischievous look on his face. Though he heard nothing, he waited. His fun was cut short however, when his eyes caught a glimpse of his wife, who was standing just outside their bedroom, arms crossed, eyebrow raised and a mocking smile that told him he wasn't really in trouble but should be ashamed. Mike moved slowly towards her, looking down as he approached. Had he been a dog, he would have had his tail between his legs. As he passed her by, Stephanie gave him a swift, loud, playful slap on the ass. This quickened his pace.

Stephanie turned in time to see his shirt drop to their bedroom floor, two feet away from the laundry basket. Her eyes rolled. Before she'd passed her son's room on the way to the kitchen, she'd focused only on biscuits and coffee, but, pausing in the exact spot he'd been standing when she caught Mike spying, she wondered for a moment what he might have heard. Or was there something he'd been waiting to hear? "Men!" thought Stephanie, though she herself stood there a moment, venturing to listen.

Dawn had been awake for a few minutes. She had heard footsteps. Laying on her side, propped up slightly, resting her head on her hand, she looked down at the shadow beneath the door. She did not allow the sensation of her companion's movement distract her.

Chris shifted. She might have remained asleep if the room had been a bit darker and had she not noticed Dawn watching something intently. The girl glanced at Chris briefly, pointed to the shadow, and said, "Good morning, baby." They both noticed the shadow shift slightly, which caused them to laugh very quietly.

Aware now that someone was spying on them, Chris followed Dawn's lead and replied, "Good morning, gorgeous."

In her sexiest voice Dawn took the prank a bit farther. "You're not getting up already, are you? Don't you wanna go again?"

"Again?" Chris could hardly suppress her laughter.

"Please?!"

Stephanie's mouth opened, jaw loosened with shock, but almost instantly she realized they knew she was outside.

"Oh, alright!" By now Chris' delivered her lines in a tone that could not disguise ridicule.

Stephanie took this as her cue to leave. Before she could head down the stairs however, she heard Mike cough and realized he'd never turned the water on. She knew he'd be standing there the whole time. There was nothing to do but grant him retribution. She approached the fragrant, half-naked man, her eyes towards the floor. She faced him, then turned around, bending forward slightly. He delivered a solid smack on the rear, followed by a grope, before heading towards the shower. Stephanie was all smiles all morning.

Outside, the two couples said their goodbyes. Mike and Dawn acted perfectly natural around each other, to Chris' relief. Michael hugged both guests warmly, advising Chris to drive carefully. Quietly, he said goodbye to the beautiful auto before him, giving it one last lingering look. It occurred to Chris that, given the option, Mike would probably pick the car over the girl. The thought pleased her tremendously.

Stephanie hugged Dawn and mentioned how good it had been to meet her. The statuesque creature in the little black dress looked no less ravishing, even if it was Sunday before noon and the lack of makeup made her look adolescent. Stephanie took her place beside her husband. She did not embrace Christabel, nor did Chris make a motion to approach Stephanie. Instead, they waved to one another. They avoided lingering looks, but tried to somehow etch one another's face in their minds. Certain farewell pleasantries, such as committing to meet again or stay in touch, had been avoided. The only thing the estranged lovers said was, "Goodbye."

Chris had just shut the passenger door when a familiar voiced called to her. Alice trotted across the street in canary yellow robes. Chris soon found herself enfolded in chiffon, struggling for air in Alice's crushing embrace. When she was released, a piece of paper was thrust in the pocket of her blouse.

"Call me, you hear?" said Michael's loud-mouthed neighbor.

Alice had no intention of detaining Chris, and turned away swiftly, but before she was able to cross the street, it was she who'd been detained. "Alice," yelled the diminutive bachelor, "there is someone I want you to meet. Maybe you can join me and my friend, Al, for drinks later this week." Chris acknowledged Alice's nod with a wave.

Seated before the wheel of her powerful machine, Chris thought to herself, "He has good taste." The skinny pair looked about the suburban landscape on the way to the city. Dawn unfastened the necklace and hung it from the rearview. Having left white fences, manicured lawns, and a succession of identical houses behind, Chris offered Dawn a gentle smile and said, "Not bad. That wasn't too bad."