Paul Michael Peters This Year's Love

This Year’s Love

a work in progress by Paul Michael Peters

This Year’s Love

By Paul Michael Peters

A free preview of a future work

CHAPTER ONE

“Sorry. I am so sorry.” Her first words.

I find myself falling. That uncontrollable fear of hitting the ground. The expectation of that acid burn on my knees from braised skin. I was a child again, on the playground, being bullied, about to taste my own blood. In an instant, I could imagine the pain, the taste of pennies, the brown liquid, the bruised lip. What if I lost all my teeth? Hit the curb just right and landed on the street, what would I do then? Do I gather up the teeth? Put them in milk is what I remember. Get to a dentist.

Here it comes, the concrete rubbing my palms raw. It’s about to happen. The shooting electricity up my leg and back to my brain. Which swearword will it produce?

“Shit!”

Tongue wipe across the incisors, top, bottom, and they feel all there. My elbows took the brunt of the shock. Oh, my knees. Here comes the pain. Adrenaline heightens senses. I can smell the cold of Adelaide Street, and it is not good.

I take a deep breath, “It’s so fucking cold!”

I roll up. My weight off my hands I can feel the palms tingle. There is burning in my knees. I steady, and get up on my toes, trusting the ball and heel to balance. Looking down, I can see the holes in my suit pants, the rub of skin now meshed into the fabric. I can feel the warm stream racing down each of my legs. The right drip wins by reaching my socks first.

“Oh dear, I am so, so sorry.” I hear her again.

In another assessment, I notice my bag is still on the ground. I bend and pick it up by the handle instead of the strap. It seems intact. I throw the strap over my neck and shoulder. It’s not going anywhere. Reality is starting to catch up. Time is returning to normal. Hands and knees are burning, bloody, elbows sore, and a throb starting in my back where I was first hit. I turn, and time slows again when our eyes meet. I can see the bat of my eyelid as my brain tries to catch up. She is the most beautiful woman in the world. Her eyes are magnetic, pulling me in.

“I am so sorry.” She repeats. “What can I do? How can I help?”

Gulp. She is talking to me. She caused this.

Her hand waves in front of my face, “Hello?”

“Shit.”

“Oh, look at you.” She starts to agonize. “Look at you. You are a mess. How can I help? I am so, so sorry.” She reaches for my arm, and what would normally be a moment I pray for in pleasure, makes me recoil and wince in pain.

“Shit!”

“Oh, this is not good. I don’t know what to do.”

Her powers of beauty over me start to subside. Time returns to normal, and I remember where I am, where I was headed, and the time. I look at my wrist, note the time, gingerly remove my phone from inside suit pocket, and dial the number. After two rings, “Gordon, yes, a bit of an accident here on the way to see you. A real accident, little injury, everyone is going to be alright. Any chance we could reschedule this?”

He says, “Yes. Of course. No injuries?”

“Nothing serious.”

“Listen, I have an hour this afternoon, or we can find time tomorrow. I will email you some different times my team can meet while you are in the city.”

“Thank you very much. My apologies for this inconvenience. I appreciate your patience.” I implore.

He wishes me well, reassures me that this is going to be acceptable for his team and that I should update him on the details and condition. Feeling a little light-headed, I thank him and hang up. I drop the phone back into the inner pocket of my suit jacket, feeling the weight of it stop at the bottom of the fabric. I can feel my lips try to find the right words.

Then, there is this kindness. This gentle touch above my elbow. She is holding on to my arm, and she asks, “Where can we go to take care of this?”

I look up and around to get my bearings, “That’s my hotel.”

“The Hilton?”

I nod.

“Oh, and you’re a guest here, and I did this, I am so sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“Let’s get you fixed up.” She says.

I can feel the tender touch, the guide walking with me, not dragging me along. Our steps are slow. My limbs are delicate. There is a new waddle to my stride. It was only half a block at best. It seemed to take forever.

“The entrance is around the corner,” I explain.

She switches sides and starts to hold my left arm now. She allows me to walk along the building side, while her body is closer to the foot traffic. Thoughtful, she shields me from potentially bumping into others. A few more yards, or if I convert, meters and we are at the steps to the side entrance.

There is no rail. She says, “It’s okay; lean on me.”

We take one at a time to the top. With the mixed rush of icy hot wind from the revolving door, and we are inside. The warm air on my skin brings a new sting. Dancing nerves around my knees and palms find new life, new pain. I can’t help the audible gasp of air in my wince.

“Oh no.”

“I’m okay.” I lie.

“Which floor are you on?”

“Thirty-two.”

She helps to the elevator bank, presses the button, and walks me inside when the doors open. Inside we watch the doors close.

“Why won’t this work?” She asks after pressing the button several times.

“You need the key.”

She reaches into my left pocket without a second thought. I can feel her hand explore the fabric space. It is another rush of the senses. This beautiful woman, hand in my pants, the adrenaline rushes through my system again. She removes my wallet and the plastic key card. She holds it up, looks at it, turns it in her hand. Maybe it’s me, but the expression she has is wonderment and inspection.

“You wave it in front of that pad.”

She looks to me and smiles, then in kind of an abrupt and clumsy first attempt passes it in front of the whole tower of elevator buttons.

“That little black rise in the.” I point. “Where the little yellow light. That’s it.”

She gets close enough to the pad to make the light turn green, then presses the button with 32. Both the key card and wallet get shoved in an avert movement in my pocket. It is strong enough to pull my suspenders taunt.

“We will need the key card again,” I say. “To get in the room.”

“Yea,” she nods with her head and neck, more profound than most people.

Her hand goes back into my pocket, fishes about, and retrieves the card.

Not sure what to say, I decide to remain silent. As I watch the numbers of each floor light up that we pass, it comes to me, the uniqueness of this moment. She somehow seems familiar to me, like I should know her from movies, a show, or something. When do they have the Toronto film festival? Is she famous?

When the door opens, she leads me forward. It is gentle. It is kind. It is patient. There is this urgency in my inner clock, “must get there, must get to client, must complete business.” This inner dialogue is always carried with me. My “American” sense of business that I know others see in me when I visit their country. Not with her. There is nothing hurried. We make it to my room. She passes the key in front of the card reader. This time a better attempt. The green light on and she helps me inside.

My bed is still a mess. The moisture from my morning shower still lingers in the room. There is even a little icy fog on the corners of the giant window looking out to the CN Tower.

“Take your pants off.”

I am a little surprised by this instruction, “Pardon?”

“Those pants are spoiled. Take them off so I can clean your wounds. Jacket too.”

Mouth agape, I am sure it’s my best imitation of a goldfish. Lips try to form words of protest, of modesty to get partially undressed in front of a total stranger.

She removes her winter jacket and tosses it on the bed revealing a dress that belongs on a red carpet. It’s tight. It is revealing. It shows her fit and fantastic body.

“What?”

I hesitate, but ask, “Are you going to rob me?”

“No. Why would you think that?”

“This all seems so foreign to me.” I shrug, “It’s just. I didn’t get your name.”

My right toe digs into the back of my left shoe, and it pops off. I repeat the same move with the left foot on my right shoe, and it clunks to the floor.

“They call me Cynth.”

“Like Cynthia?”

“You can call me Cynthia or Cynth.”

I start to take my spoiled suit off. As I do, Cynthia stands and helps my arm out of each sleeve. She lays the jacket over the back of the desk chair. I undo my pant button and zipper and start to roll the suspender strap off each shoulder.

She says, standing in front of me, “I find suspenders are traditionally handsome on a man.”

As I start to remove my pants, she stoops down, allowing me to keep balance on her shoulder, and taking my pants down and over each foot.

She lifts the pants, holds them taunt, and lays them over the jacket on the back of the chair.

“There is no saving these slacks.” She takes my hand and leads me to the bathroom. “I like this room.”

“I like to stay at this Hilton when I am here in Toronto.” I am slow to follow her. “They treat me well here, plus these rooms are nice and big. They just redid this floor last year, so they are like new.”

Marble counters, large walk-in showers, thick white towels, and good lighting welcome guests in the executive rooms. They are spacious and comfortable.

“Sit here.” She instructs.

I follow her order and plant myself on the closed lid. I watch her run a hot tap, take the thick hand towel and wet it.

It is the first time looking at the damage. Worse than I thought. It resembles ground hamburger in the market display window. Congealed blood has done its work but caked remains mark a stream dragged down by gravity to my sock line.

“This is a mess.” She looks to my knees. She takes the steaming hot hand towel away from the tap, turns off the water, and gets down on her knees, on the white bath mat, in front of me. Delicately she starts to dab the wet hot cloth against my skins damaged areas. Alternately she applies a steady cool blow from her mouth. This sensation between wet heat and cool air is both refreshing and distracting. She stands, runs the tap, rings out the water, and returns to her position on the floor to care for me. I watch her work. She is patient. She is tender. When she looks up from her work, I am embarrassed, jarred by both her beauty and her generosity.

Her smile holds no conceit. She is pure and in the moment.

Words fumble from my mouth, “Thank you.”

Another smile from her, and I might burst with the glowing sense of happiness provided at this moment. Something deep inside me is found, that is joy.

“Do you have any—” I can hear her search for the right words.

“I have a first aid kit in my Doop bag.”

She looks confused by the description.

I point, “On the counter, that brown leather bag. The white box inside is a travel first-aid kit.”

She stands, goes to the counter, opens the bag and starts to remove items.

I am embarrassed when the foil prophylactic packs come out. She says nothing. The deodorant, vitamins, shaving items, hair products, and all the other vanities I carry are out on display. Now, the white plastic box, with the red cross on the face in her hand. I can see from my seated position she is opening the box, looking inside, considering options.

“Normally, I would be freaked out by another person touching all my things.” I can feel the nervous honesty bubble out of me. “I frequently travel for my job. All the blue rubber gloves in the security lines might protect the wearer, but they spread all types of germs across the items they fondle and touch on those conveyor belts. I mean, I ‘love my fellow man’ but they are really gross. I can’t afford to get sick. Who knows what they do? I mean, I wiped down the remote control and door knobs with cleaning pads when I walked in this room. Lord knows what disgusting things have happened in here.”

She returns to the bathroom rug. Several adhesive bandages in hand, and the little tube of antiseptic, antibiotic, gel-like stuff for cuts. She is precise in the application of the goo to my knees. Again, she blows on my skin and takes my mind off the pain.

My nervous talk doesn’t stop, “Sometimes I get in these hotel rooms, and I find a glitter party was held before I checked in. Glitter is so hard to clean up. It sticks around for months. And I don’t think there was a scout troop doing arts and crafts. I know that some professional vertical pole acrobat was earning extra cash on some guys lap, on the couch in the hotel room.”

She looks to me, and when our eyes meet, I realize she doesn’t understand my cynicism or attempt at humor. So, I explain, “Prostitutes wear a lot of glitter. It’s difficult to clean.” Then, my guilt kicks in, and I try to explain, “Horrible thing human trafficking. Nothing that should ever be made light of, not funny.”

But there is an honesty, a sincerity in her expression that I can’t explain. I can hear my inner teenage conversation repeat, “She is so hot dude.” But it isn’t that. There is something of a childlike quality to her as an adult. Again, I feel guilty for focusing on nothing but how beautiful she is, and only on the physical. She is something unique to walk me back to my room. Something surprising about her too, without hesitation, take complete care of me. There is no complaint. No squirmy abandon at the sight of blood. She is just here, in the now. Trying her best to help a total stranger. So rare. So wonderful.

I take a deep breath, steady my thoughts, and try to be empathetic to her, “What happened?”

She continues with the last of the bandages on my knee, “What happened?”

“Why were you in such a rush, when you knocked into me?”

“Show me your hands.”

I give her both hands palm up.

“You don’t have bandages to fit this situation. I should clean them.”

Cynthia stand and takes a new hand towel from the rack. She turns on the hot tap until it steams. The white towel goes under the water and gets rung until it is just the right balance of warm and damp. She taps at my palms with the towel. I try to hold them in place and steady for her to work. Cynthia blows and pats at my hands until satisfied. The same tube of gel dispenses a large dollop on to each palm. There is a peaceful rhythm created as she gently rubs the goo into my skin.

Job complete, she looks to me, and I am caught again in her eyes. She is perfect. I can feel her pull my hands to help me stand, “Let’s get you up and dressed.”

CHAPTER TWO

 

“I think you will look handsome in this suit. It’s a better cut and color for you than the spoiled one.”

I smile at the compliment. It’s the first I’ve had in a long time.

“You have a good eye, that is one of my tailored suits.”

Cynthia steps over to the desk. Working on the spoiled suit slacks, she unbuttons and removes the suspenders. I watch as she takes the pants from the navy tailored suit and fastens them, unfastens them, and holds them open and low in front of me to step inside. Again, I touch her shoulder to steady myself. She lifts them, helping me find my arm inside each suspender loop, and takes them over my shoulder. I can feel her hand against me as she tucks the edges of my shirt under the waist, deep into the pants. I am surprised when she then buttons and zips my pants.

As she goes for the paired jacket, I say, “You know I am not that injured. I really appreciate your help, but I can do this myself.”

When she turns, I can see her fantastic smile, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

“Wow, that’s profound.”

“Mahatma Gandhi said it.” She opens my jacket. “Turn around.”

I do as told, turn, and she assists me in finding each arm a home in the sleeve. There is a slap and brush across my shoulders. I assume smacking away any dandruff or dust. “There.” I feel the snug pull at the coattails, “This will help accentuate your shoulders. People respect masculinity in others. Turn.”

I turn.

“Now there is a handsome man.”

My hand reaches into the jacket over the back of the chair to retrieve my phone. In a few touches, the email from my client appears.  He has an alternative time to meet this afternoon which would be perfect. I open the flap of my bag and remove the computer. I roll the chair back and sit at the desk. Laptop out, screen on, I am in work mode. It is a tunnel vision of mentality which allows me to exclude anything not related to the task at hand. In seconds email is up, and I start to compose a thoughtful explanation. I thank him for the flexibility in moving the meeting. Next, explain that I was struck down in the street. In the last hour have been provided medical treatment and will be able to make the meeting time suggested this afternoon.

It is my nature to move through the unanswered email while in work mode. I see the new items that have arrived, open, assess, and answer. This is repeated several more times for priority issues of the day.

When I look up, I realize that an hour has transpired. In my selfishness, I totally forgot that Cynthia was still here. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching. Her legs crossed, completely composed, just watching me.

“Cynthia, I am so sorry.”

“There is no need to apologize.”

“I looked at one email, then another, and it just got away from me.”

“I know, I was watching.”

“My apologies.”

“Please, I want to make certain that my impact won’t keep you from your business.”

“You have been so good to me, taking me back here, patching me up. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Her peaceful expression of acceptance seemed sincere. “What are your plans for the rest of the day?”

“Well,” I buy time trying to figure this situation out. One the one hand, she is a stranger who knocked me down. How did that exactly happen? It came from behind. Do I want to tell a stranger my detailed information? Something inside is not trusting this yet. She has seen me in my underwear. So, there is some level of intimacy that has already been achieved. There is something comforting about being with her, something I can’t place my finger on that I find bewitching. “I guess I am going to have a bite to eat, then go to this meeting that was rescheduled.”

“What will you do after that?”

“Well,” I am hesitant to say. “I have some friends that invited me to dinner tonight. I was going to see them.”

“Very good.” She stands, and with a swipe of her hands down the front of her dress straightens out the lines from sitting, “I will escort you to grab a bite to eat, make certain you safely get to your meeting, and your dinner with friends.”

“Oh, well—”

“I insist. It is the least I can do for causing this injury.”

“You insist?”

“I do.” Her eyes look me up and down, “A wise man once said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.””

“Which wise man said that?”

“Muhammad Ali.”

“And you insist on spending the day with me.”

“I do, insist.”

She lifts the black winter coat and puts each arm through the sleeve. I attempt to return the gentlemanly gesture in helping her with it, but I am too slow, and she has it on in a jiff.

“It is such a beautiful coat. It looks warm.”

“It is very warm.” She raises her shoulder as if hugging herself and the jacket, eyes looking to the ceiling with a tilt of the head.

“I get this feeling I know you. Are you a model? Are you on television or in movies?”

“You are so kind.” She says with a slight blush and a flip of her wrist. “I am a model, a one of a kind model.”

I laugh at her lightheartedness.

“It’s refreshing to meet someone like you. So, modest? Is that the right word? No, genuine.”

“Thank you.” Her cheek pressed against the high black collar of the jacket, one of the features to keep her warm, “Now let’s get you a bite to eat.”

Laptop in the bag. Strap over shoulder and neck. Phone in pocket. Shoes on, and I am walking to the door behind her.

“Where is your coat?”

I say, “I didn’t bring a winter coat this time. It takes up too much room on the plane.” What I don’t say, is there is a new inner warmth. Being with Cynthia has brought a fresh inner glow I have not felt in a long time. Something I can’t explain. Something I would never say out loud.

“No, this won’t do. You need a coat.”

“I can make it a few blocks.”

“I know a place around the corner. We can look.”

Heading down the corridor, I hear the door latch behind me in a clank and click. Wrist out, I note the time and say, “A quick look.”

“A quick look.” She agrees.

CHAPTER THREE

 “We are back to the start,” I say.

“What do you mean?”

“145 Adelaide, right there, that’s where up helped me up.”

“Yes. I guess we are back to the start.”

I keep moving forward. The pain isn’t as sharp. The aspirin from the hotel lobby is starting to work.

“Where is this shop you want to stop at?”

“Two more blocks up.”

“Let’s cross over to the other side at the light, and we can grab something to eat. Sound good?”

“Yes.”

In a few more steps, we are at the corner. The beeps for the blind start and we journey across Adelaide.

“That sound, it is called an Accessibility Pedestrian Signal or an APS.” She explains. “It’s an audible beacon to help those who are impaired.”

It is almost embarrassing the snail’s pace that I keep. “Really? I didn’t know that.”

 “Yes. In fact, in 2025 Ontario passed an ordinance that requires major cities like Toronto to turn these on during high traffic times, bypassing a button that one needed to press before that.”

I make it to the curb and can feel the elastic on the bandage stretch when I bend my knee to step up. As one beep for the blind ends, the other starts for us to cross York.

“After eight-o-clock PM the APS beacon switches back to the manual dependence of the pressed button.”

Across York and the tickle of the bandage on bending knee brings back a sense that I am grateful for Cynthia. I may have been nose down on that one.

“Is that your area of expertise? Government? Do you work for the City?”

“No, I just find these things interesting.”

Her arm, locked with mine, I can feel her hand give a little squeeze of encouragement. When I look to her, she smiles sharing that same sense.

“You would be good at trivia night at the bar I bet.”

“I would.” There is that smile again.

Finally, we have arrived at the nearest Tim Hortons. And like every Tim Hortons, on every block in Toronto, there is a line.

“What will you order?” She asks.

“I am going to get a medium double-double.”

“Double-double?”

“This is when the barista puts in two cream and two sugar. I am also going to get a whole grain carrot orange muffin. What would you like? My treat?”

“I will get the same.”

“Very well.”

With a quick check of the wrist, we have time to sit after placing our order. We take a seat near the window. I sip at my coffee, peel away the paper on the muffin, and pull the moist chucks apart.

“The trick you see is to eat enough before the presentation that you have energy, but not so much that you burp, or your stomach makes weird noises.”

She asks, “Is this meeting important?”

“It is the pre-meeting to the most important meeting I have had in a long time. So, yes, it’s important. This needs to go well, so next week, when I come back, the client says yes right away. I don’t want them to have any doubt in their mind that this is not only the right choice but the best choice.”

“That sounds like a good strategy. Leave them no doubt.”

I sip at my coffee and say, “You know, it’s nice to have someone to talk to before a meeting. Normally I am going in on these alone.”

“Being alone is the worst.”

“I have a hard time believing that you ever find yourself alone.”

“It’s true. I am alone often. I find myself trying to stay occupied. If I can distract my mind, it can help.”

I nod, and empathize, “I think that’s why I work so much. It occupies my mind, distracts from the empty parts. All of my social life is watching others online. It’s easy to get sucked in, feel that others have better happier lives.”

“When I watch others, I think they know something I don’t. There must be this answer they have. I wonder if they are keeping a secret from me. At times I am locked up. I don’t understand. People seem so content, so happy.”

“Locked up, what a great way to describe it. I feel that way too.”

“What is it you do?”

“I’m just a sales guy.”

“Who are we going to visit?”

“The largest bank in Canada.”

“Why do you have the best option for them?”

“Well,” I sigh. “I wish the answer were that simple. It’s my job to make it simple. Make them understand. It comes down to three things, I think. The technology is something they are familiar with. It aligns with the policies for compliance. They have worked with us in the past, and we seem to work together well. Those two reasons alone are why I have the meeting.”

“And the third reason?”

“They are going to want that third reason to be the price. Every client wants it to be price and cost, and negotiate the deal. But I don’t want that. I want this to go quick.”

“So how do you make that happen?”

“I have to show value. What they are getting is worth the price, or it seems like such a good deal, they have to take it.”

“How do you show value?”

“Are you sure you want to hear this? This is dull stuff. I mean, you don’t have to be polite.”

“I am interested in what this value is. As I said, I am interested in many things.”

“Value can be expressed in quality. Like this muffin. They are charging $2.49 for this muffin. This muffin is part of a brand that provides higher standards of quality than other places we walked by, so it is worth the extra steps, to get the best quality muffin.”

“I see. Is that all?”

“You can also show value through gains of efficiency.”

“What do you mean?”

“I could have made my own muffin. At a lower cost, find the ingredients, and put this together myself. But I don’t have the time or facilities. It’s more efficient for me to come and shop with them. That is a value to preserve my time for myself from finding the goods and making it.”

“Is there another value? Or are those the only ones?”

“You could make a case for anything, but I think that effectiveness is the third of three great options.”

“What does effectiveness mean?”

“There are many options at the counter. Those sugar donuts, bear claws, Boston crème, croissant, maybe a bread. But I chose the whole grain carrot orange muffin.”

“Why?”

“It has the value of being the healthiest option. My body gets more energy, dietary fiber, and vitamins from this muffin than any of the other choices available at this time, at this place. So it is more effective at creating energy for my presentation, for my cells in my body to heal, than any one of those other items, which taste way better, but are less effective at meeting my goals.”

She nods, “Interesting.”

“You don’t want your muffin?”

She crumples the brown paper fold in her hand to seal in the muffin, then places it in her coat pocket, “I will save it for later. Let’s get you a coat.”

CHAPTER FOUR

 

“You’re right. That is a handsome jacket.” I turn and look away from the store window display. She is still locked in a gaze at the pair in the window.

“Aren’t they a handsome couple?”

“Yes, very.”

She is focused on the two mannequins wearing smart winter outfits. The female is wearing an identical jacket to Cynthia’s, the male in the one she wants me to purchase.

“You are shorter than him, but about the same size in the frame.” She says.

It is partly a compliment to be compared to a mannequin but does not feel great for her to point out I am just shy of six feet tall.

“She and I are the same dimensions, which is why this coat is perfect for me.”

There are similarities I can see between the two. Both have elegant necklines, defined shoulders, and share what seems the perfect cup size. I blanch at the thought of noticing her breasts after Cynthia has been so kind to me.

“You need this coat. We can match.”

“That sounds–”

She takes my hand firmly and leads me to the front entrance.

It’s the familiar jingle of retail bells as the door opens to the shop. My arm outstretched I hold the handle for her to enter first. The smell of linen and fresh fabrics is inviting.

With the excitement of a child, she rushes ahead to the location of the jacket on a hanger.

“Can I help you?” A slender woman wearing black, with a purple mohawk, and several facial piercings ask. She appears to be the store clerk. Amongst the white walls, and oxblood wooden floors, she stands out from the decor.

Cynthia says, “This jacket, please. His chest is 100 centimeters. So, this size,” she selects. “Will be the one we require.” Removing the jacket by the hanger off the hook, she hands it to the clerk.

“Okay?” There is a sarcastic flat retail tone. “Anything else?”

“That scarf, the black one. And gloves.”

“I can’t wear gloves.” I interrupt. Hold up the bandaged hands to show my palms.

“Oh, yes. Just the scarf.”

The clerk takes the items to the counter. She lays it flat, so the implanted security tags are all in the field of range. The low hum of the security deactivation field starts and stops with a click. She removes register a tablet from her pant pocket and offers it to me, “That’s $325 for the jacket, $185 for the scarf, plus $82 VAT on each, which comes to a total of $674. Thumbprint please.”

There is an audible gulp in my throat, “I always forget how high your taxes are here.”

The clerk has a sense of impatience supported by an expression that she could be doing something better with her time. I take the tablet, press my thumb on the screen and am now the proud owner of a new winter coat.

Before the clerk can take the tablet, or offer to wrap the coat, Cynthia has whisked it off the counter and almost dances with it as a partner over to me.

“Arm please.” She says sweetly.

I comply and extend my arm. It slides on. My other arm turns with my body, and she has it entirely on me. It smells terrific, the new wool. The inner lining is silver silk that provides a distinctive line against the black exterior. It feels warm, like a comfortable embrace by one’s mother, but not hot. It moves with me but is not a burden of added weight.

Cynthia starts to wrap the scarf around my neck. It is soft. It may be the softest fabric I’ve worn.

She walks around me, inspecting my appearance. “It is Grade A Cashmere from the goats of Kashmir. This scarf has 14 to 15.5 microns in diameter wool making it feel the smoothest against your skin.”

I look to the cashier, removed of the passion and spark Cynthia shows, “It’s a nice scarf.”

“You look very handsome in this,” Cynthia says.

There is a chime from the register, as the clerk takes it back in hand, “Thank you for shopping with us today, Mr. Crease. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Mr. Crease?” Cynthia asks.

“Yes, that’s my last name Crease.”

“Like a fold? A pressing? A ridge?”

“Yes, spelled the same.”

“What is your first name?”

“Dashiell.”

“Dashiell Crease?”

“Yes, that’s my full name.”

“What a great name. A sophisticated and handsome name for a man. I should have asked when we first met.” She repeats softly. “Dashiell Crease.”

The clerk gets my attention, “Anything else today Mr. Crease?”

“No, no thank you. We are good.” I look to Cynthia, who is acting a little strange now that she knows my name. “We have a schedule, Cynthia.”

Her thoughts break when calling her name. She looks up to me and steps forward, helping me to and through the door, back to Adelaide street.

CHAPTER FIVE

 

“Gordon, thank you. Thank you for accommodating this change in time.” I extend my hand to shake. “I must look an awful sight.”

“Dash, are you okay? Dear lord.”

“I’ve got a little hitch in my giddy-up as they say back home.”

Gordon laughs. I can see his eyes change focus to the woman at my arm.

“And who is this?”

“Gordon, this is Cynthia. She is helping me get around today.”

Gordon looks flush, extends his hand to her, and says, “At your service.”

I have worked with Gordon long enough to know he is basically eye fucking Cynthia. The same man who I took out for “drinks” just last year and told me watching the stripper of his choice dance in his lap, “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite, as long as you go home for supper.” He now holds the hand of Cynthia a second longer than socially polite. Cynthia plays it just right, with a giggle, that amazing smile and no word of protest. She understands the importance of this day.

“Let’s get you up to the board room.”

“Boardroom?”

“Yea, Florence is going to be in the room. I told you that, eh?”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Oh, you’ll be fine buddy. Just another day, eh?” Gordon is on his heels and rolls back to the lobby security clerk. “They are with me. I’m walking them in.” He gives the nod to the guard.

About ten feet ahead, I find strength in Cynthia’s arm under mine. Not just to keep me balanced and upright, but that little spark of confidence that I can get through this day.

“Who is Florence?” She whispers.

“She is Gordon’s boss’s, boss’s, boss. The decision maker. The person with the budget.”

“I thought that was next week’s meeting.”

“Me too.”

Gordon, holding open the gate that has been accessed through his keycard, smiles and watches Cynthia aid me. He is all smiles and distraction with nervous energy. I’ve only seen him produce around certain women. This is more apparent to me than ever when getting into the elevator, Gordon starts his pick-up pitch.

“Do you follow hockey, Cynthia?”

She shakes her head.

“Because I played for the Laval Rocket for a season.” There is a smirk on his face, and his chest pushes out a little.

“Really?” She replies slightly impressed in her tone.

Gordon’s hands find the way to his belt buckle under the suit jacket and cinch them higher on his waist. In the silence of the lift, she turns her attention to the numbers roll over as we pass each floor. Gordon’s confidence starts to deflate as he thinks about what he said, and the lack of continued interest it responded from her. I can imagine the thoughts in his head. “But this used to work. All the ladies respond to that information. Usually, they want to ask why I left, or who I know, or if I still get season tickets to the Leaf’s.” With the process, of reality sinking in, he shifts his stance.

Gordon asks, “You ready for this Dash?”

“Always ready.” I hide my nerves. I know that he didn’t tell me Florence would be at the meeting. I suspect he didn’t tell me because he forgot. There might be the possibility he just found out himself. He might be trying to save face; Gordon’s go to play.

“Nice jacket.” Gordon compliments. “Good for this polar vortex. Can’t remember a time this cold in years.”

“It’s a handsome jacket, isn’t it?” Cynthia says.

Gordon smiles. The elevator door opens. His hand presses the open button. Cynthia leads me out the door into the executive lobby of this top floor.

The receptionist smiles from behind the curved desk, “Mr. Crease?”

“Yes.”

Her arm extends to my left, “You are right down here on the right board room. Do you need coffee? Water?”

“Water would be great. Thank you.”

We continue to go forward not breaking step. On approach I can see on the other side of the glass, the room is full. Serious faces for each in their high back leather chairs. Gordon has five years on me. This group has somewhere between ten to twenty.

“You delivered Gordon, I asked to meet the decision makers, and this looks like them.”

At the head of the table is an elegant woman — the gray streak in her hair a bold swath in the jet-black. From the look of the sharp elbows and bold natural shoulders in the emerald green professional Sheath dress, I ask, “Head of the table? Florence?”

“That is her buddy.”

Lake Ontario looks dark and cold from this view. It is ice near the shore. Wind at this height must be terrific. I can almost feel the pressure against the glass.

My professional smile expresses happiness, with a sense of seriousness. It is more jovial than jolly. I wear it as we walk along the glass corridor to the door of the boardroom.

I see Florence look up from the corner of her eye. When she sees us, her whole face moves and follows. Getting to the door, and looking across the boardroom table, all heads are up and fixed on us. The man at the front of the room continues to speak in front of a giant monitor. He is pointing to numbers, charts, and graphs. He is the only one not looking.

Stepping closer, I can now see that Florence is not looking at “us,” but her, looking at Cynthia. I can see the eleven others have not noticed me. They are fixed on her. There is an almost audible gulp in my throat. Is this an advantage? Or a distraction?

CHAPTER SIX

 

There is a tang in the air of perspiration. It is not the result of hard work, like the gym. Instead, it hints of fear. I’ve been in the situation before. Locked away in a room for days, the pressure to a deadline, lousy food and gas building up in the belly, and the only sunlight you see is from behind the UV protected glaze on the glass. It’s not a prosperous environment for humans. It is the boiler room for business that stokes the fuel for the engine of prosperity. With the first whiff, something professional inside me clicks on. The pain is gone. I am only here in the moment, now.

The speaker ends.

I extend my hand to shake with Florence, “Hello, I am Dashiell Crease.”

“Florence Morin.”

“Thank you for allowing me time on your busy day.” It is professional, firm, confident.

“Let me take your jacket,” The receptionist says from behind me with a bottle of water.

We trade, I give her the jacket, I take the bottle of water in the exchange. Behind Florence are chairs where I see Gordon and Cynthia find a place.

I reach into my suit coat and remove my phone, press the button for connection to the giant monitor, and allow it to show my slides.

There are ethereal moments my father described to me in life. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods both talked of Zen moments in golf where they could play without effort. Prince playing “While my guitar gently weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Abigail Davis landing Vision on Mars with fumes in her auxiliary tank, then taking her first steps to plant the American flag. This was mine.

The introduction, captivating. Setting up the case, perfect. The first question interrupting at the ten-minute mark, happened as if they didn’t know I planted that seed in the fourth slide to ask me. And the look from Florence Morin, Division President of this financial institution, that was more than a polite smile, contributed to my confidence.

“In eight months, at a conservative rate of 2% adoption in the organization, the system pays for itself,” I conclude.

Unlike the movies, when you make a compelling argument, there are no slow claps that build to applause. More often than not, there are a series of squeaks that sound from the pivot in the chair to turn to the senior most person and see what the correct reaction should be from the superior. These high back leather chairs are well greased and did not squeak, but the rustle in movement gave a similar impression. Each looking up from a monitor and to Vice President Morin.

Her accent a little more pronounced than from our introduction, she says, “I like it. Let’s get this to procurement. Fifteen-minute break everyone.”

My sigh of relief is mighty. This was my last six months. With this, the switch turned back. I could feel the pain, the burn, the warble in balance return.

Florence, now turning to talk to Cynthia, allowed the other eleven at the table to stand and move for the break in the day. I steadied myself by grabbing to the back of the now empty chair nearest to me.

There was a study I once read that talked about the target times in the day one should pursue for the most desired outcome. The study focused on criminals going in front of a judge. The data revealed that you would get the most favorable ruling for the defendant based on the blood sugar level over the one presiding. Early morning, well-rested, belly full, there is a good chance you are going to get a favorable ruling. This drops during the morning until the worst outcomes before lunch. Following the break, your chances are good but drop steadily as you approach the end of the day. This post lunch time zone seemed ideal for Florence Morin. As I watch her engage with Cynthia, Gordon steps away. He joins other men outside the glass barrier ogling my guide. I can see Gordon’s mouth as he says, “Yea, can you believe she is with him, eh? What a lucky guy.” Looking back to Cynthia, I see that Florence is writing something down. The little white rectangle, it seems like a business card. She is handing it to Cynthia. The two smile, and nod, and Florence stands to step away from the table.

Florence smiles at me and says, “Nice work. I look forward to working with you,” before leaving.

We are alone in the boardroom, just Cynthia and me. I let go of the chair, step forward, and forget how to walk. It’s not a hard fall this time. It makes the old wounds feel fresh.

Cynthia is over me in an instant.

“What happened? Are you all right?”

“I lost my footing.” I roll over to my back. Looking up I see the wrinkled smile of Cynthia, a mix of laughter and sympathy.

“It wasn’t me this time.”

“I know.” The floor seems comfortable at the moment. Seeing her like this over me, paying attention to me, gives me a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. Gingerly, I ask, “Did Florence give you her number?”

“She did. It’s her private phone. If I ever want to get drinks with her.”

“Is that normal for you?”

“Normal?”

My left-hand finds the chair. I sit up. My right-hand finds the table. Cynthia finds my waist and lifts me to my feet. “Do people give you their number? Pay attention to you, more?”

“I don’t know if it’s more. Yes, they do.”

With steady legs and her assistance, we get back to the conference room door. We make our way past the gaggle Canadian’s posturing for an excuse to talk with Cynthia, to the receptionist desk. The woman has my new coat. There is a moment of help to putting it on, and we make our way to the elevator.

Doors shut, I ask, “Do you still want to have dinner with my friends tonight? I feel like I owe you a big thank you. Florence seemed to respond to you, and that helped make things happen.”

“I insist.” She smiles.

My phone back out, a quick message composed to friends, “Brining +1 for dinner.”

   

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

The Edwards live on Walker. Steps away from the Summerhill station it is ideally situated in Toronto on treelined streets to give that small-town feeling, nestled in the big city. Rodman and Judith Edwards are DINK’s, a term that has witnessed a resurgence in the last five years, meaning Double Income, No Kids. Summerhill is only affordable to this high-income group. They enjoy the green spaces and city life next to a series two story brownstone.

“This neighborhood is wonderful,” Cynthia says. “All of these homes are on the former estate of Charles Thompson, the Canadian transportation baron.”

“You sure know your history.”

I can feel the warmth of her arm tucked under mine. She must cross train. Her strength has been impressive throughout the day. A few slick spots have sent me off balance while she remains constant.

In the darkness of winter, the incandescent lights of the Edwards home through the front window remind me of a lighthouse on the shore of Lake Michigan.

My breath is a plume of frozen vapor when I say, “This is it. We’re here.”

Cynthia stops and asks, “How good of friends are they?”

“How do you mean?”

“Are they best friends? Or people you know?”

I pat her gloved hand holding my arm and encourage, “You’ll be fine. Just be yourself.”

Up the three steps to the porch, I press the button and here the chime inside. Judith’s shadow fills the opaque entrance. The clicks of the unlatching mechanism build the anticipation to an open door. The friendly smile and warm greeting, “Come inside, quick, quick, warm up inside.”

“Judith?” Rodman’s voice from the other room calls. “Is that them?”

“Let me take your coats so you can warm up inside.”

There is a mat with shoes next to the door, where I remove and leave my pair. Cynthia now with her coat off and in Judith’s arm follows.

“You must be Cynthia.” Judith looks her in the eye, then fully embraces her. “Thank you for saving our Dashiell.”

With her arms around Cynthia, cheeks pressed, and nose above her should, says forwardly, “Oh, you smell good.”

Cynthia blushes, “Thank you.”

Judith turns and calls, “Rodman, they are here.”

Footsteps on the wooden floor get closer. Rodman’s tall and lanky body comes round the corner ducking under the doorframe and down the hallway to greet us, “Dashiell.” He nods. “And? Cynthia?”

Rodman stoops down and takes the opportunity to greet my companion in a European tradition, first check, second, and back. “You smell good.”

Judith says, “I know, I said that she smells good. Doesn’t she Dash?”

“I didn’t, I mean, yes.”

Cynthia looks between the three of us and smiles from all the attention. “This is a beautiful entry. I am sure the rest of the house is just as wonderful.”

“That’s our cue, boys. We are crowding this girl. Let’s go inside. Come on Rodman, let’s go Dash, step inside.”

I wait until the two lead Cynthia out of the entry, down the hall, and follow them into the back of the house. Judith explains the story of the house. It was in a dilapidated state only six years ago. She takes her through the refurbishment story. All good couples have stories. The archive of what has made them, “them,” over the time together. There is a volume in this library about how they first met, an instruction manual on the house, a series of cookbooks for successful and failed meals, biographies of guests they have hosted, and travelogues of vacations (with pictures on request.) Every couple has good stories. Watching Cynthia in the glow of friendship and recently installed recess lighting, I wonder if today might be one of ours. The day we met.

“Look at this girl, so thin, we should put something in her. Are you hungry? Hm? Let’s sit down and we can dig in.”

“Can I help with anything?” Cynthia asks.

“No honey, that’s sweet, you sit. Please. Rodney will tell you his story about the boat.” Judith’s less intimate voice calls out, “Rodman, pour the red wine for our guests and tell them that story about the boat.”

Turing to the kitchen I can see Judith give Cynthia a second look. She notices that I caught her, and mouths the words, “Smells so good.”

“So, there I was,” Rodman starts, taking the crystal decanter from the bar and steadying his pour over each of the glasses. Every story from Rodman starts this way. It’s his signature trait, “So, there I was.” This is filled in with the story hook, “facing down a grizzly,” “nose to nose with the CEO,” “shaking hands with the Queen of England.” He does tell good stories. His height helps him stand out in a crowd. Unlike many of his other vertically enhanced peers, he is not shy. The attention is welcome. His world as a tall guy provides him access to a social scene us average Joe’s don’t get.

In confidence, during a Raptors game (the league where the actual cloned Raptors are in a pit, not that boring basketball thing) he mentioned that he doesn’t always want to be ‘the tall guy.’ In fact he said it like this, “Hey, tall guy on a boat. Hey, tall guy in a small car. Hey, tall guy in an elevator. It’s always, Hey tall guy in a… Which is followed by, how’s the weather? People think they discovered this quip. It’s not even funny.” Still, he explained he liked the adventure, the perspective.

The boat story is funny. Dinner is delicious. Conversation and companionship unequalled. Through it all, I appreciate Cynthia even more for her social grace. She comes across as a good listener, but gives as good as she gets when Rodman ribs her.

Helping me to get my shoes back on, saying our good-byes, Judith takes a moment to whisper in my ear, “Rodman and I talked. If you start to date her, we are totally into sharing.”

I could feel the wrinkle form on my forehead attempting to understand what was just said. It still rattled in my head, Cynthia taking my arm, and aiding me down each step, to the taxi.

“Where to?”

I look to Cynthia, “We should drop you first.”

“The Hilton Toronto, on Richmond.” She says.

“Are you sure?”

“My place is across the street.”

***

She must have been a former athlete. There is power yet carries it with grace. Maybe a swimmer with the “v” shape to her torso, down to her waist. Perhaps a gymnast. Still, she is tall for the bar or floor exercises. As a swimmer, or better yet a diver, there would be advantage the lines in her shape.

Models carry this in stride and sway. It is purposeful. It is trained into the muscle memory to turn the head at a certain angle. Hands on waist, bend, and it shows the hips and legs. Point the toes when you walk, show off the calf. Clenched cheeks to reveal a tight bum, as these Canadians say.

Her skin seems flawless, or her makeup covers any signs of the traumatic adolescence.

I am lost in her smile. We sit in the back seat of the taxi looking at one another in some awkward teenage stare. A flutter of energy in my tummy and I think back to the first kiss, Janet Dragger, in the back yard of her parent’s house. Nestled in the long green grass of a hot summer hidden in the shade of appliance box from her parent’s recent purchase. It was unknown mechanics of the flesh programmed into my DNA. Awkward and fumbling at first, it turned quickly into a rush of excitement. Lips, sweet. Taste of sugar. Wet and hot young bodies pressing mouths, then tongues. Hands touching, fingers exploring, the senses on fire. New, yes. More, yes.

Looking in Cynthia’s eyes takes me back to the original rush of the unknown possibilities where life is still a dream. The future has yet to unfold.

Lights from Yonge and Dundas, Toronto’s Time Square, fill her eyes with sparkles and reflection as the universe unfolds. The car stops short for the signal and pedestrians. Momentum jerks us forward and back. I find my hand now on hers, fingers touch. I find courage in the moment, lean forward and meet her at half the distance in a kiss.