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Evening Encounter

Jerry Houle

There he was, of a late midweek afternoon, exiting an airport for the next to last time this week. Searching for a recognizable arm wave, he almost at once spotted Ralph Kait leaning across the front seat of a sporty black Camaro, gesturing professionally.

           For a fifty-ish motor freight carrier VP, Ralph took an uncommon high road when it came to choices in airport car rentals. Garson Laval was accustomed to being met by vendors serving his company when arriving by plane. Ralph's home office was in San Diego. Garson had informed him the week before of his plans to visit his company's facilities here in Seattle. As usual, Ralph adjusted his schedule to meet Garson. As always, he arrived earlier, rented a car and picked up Garson at the air terminal exit. Garson didn't always favor this customary arrangement, but today he was glad of it. Taking a long breath and feeling the dehydration of a three-hour flight and the expanding headache, he launched himself toward the car, garment bag thrust over his shoulder.

           Just two more days and this week's sojourn would be over. Back into Newark airport, into his own car, and back on the turnpike home. Only it didn't sound any better this time than any other.

           This was not about home and hearth and all manner of warm sentiment. Being "out there" was much closer to the comfort zone his home should have been. For unremembered years the gap in his marriage had been widening with the increasing awareness that he wasn't the only one pulling away. The late seventies were seeing divorce turning almost fashionable among what were becoming labeled "yuppies."

           Two things had kept him from a clean break. The lesser of these was his children. Strange to acknowledge them as the lesser important reason, but there it was, out in front of him. He just didn't know what to do about them. They were all survivors, very much in the mold of both parents. He couldn't put it all together how to discuss it with them. All they had ever known among the crowd he and Faye ran in was one divorce upon another until it had become trite subject matter for family discussion. In every way he and Faye had tried to reassure them that it wasn't going to happen in their home. Now that it seemed likely to come to pass, he couldn't figure out how to present the issue. He and Faye had reached a tentative agreement about trial separation as a test basis.

           The more important reason was a much more devastating prospect. That of life without the family that he had grown into. All his younger life he had been searching for a family to feel a part of, and Faye's family had been all of that. During the intervening twenty years he had sought and been favored with the sense of belonging that had evaporated early in his own upbringing. In her family he was made to feel beloved. He enjoyed the respect of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. Even his wife's parents had embraced him willingly, despite the variances of religion and working class status. The thought of leaving all that behind rose above all the incentives he felt to do what was right in his personal code. In words his therapist, a few years from now would use, "He just didn't know what to do".

           So there he was in the third and last destination of this week's business travel, meeting a vendor colleague whom he had now known for nearly a decade. As they maneuvered through Seattle's early rush hour traffic, it was refreshing to be in the company of someone such as Ralph. By habit, they mutually held off conversation dealing with business. Their association was only one of many each had among the broad fraternity of shipper and carrier representatives.

           It was the nature of the effort needed to distribute manufactured goods that, over time, created friendship among buying and selling representatives engaged in transportation services. The carriers, being the sellers, served multiple shippers, and this brought shippers into contact with one another as well, often dealing with governmental regulatory affairs or mutually rewarding operating practices. In this manner they all became a community of their own, apart from the awareness or approval of employers. Their loyalties to one another could, at times, surpass what they owed their employers and they frequently exchanged operating information and technology without consulting their own management.

           Ralph said, "It's been a good while since we had a chance to spend an evening together. "

           Garson said, "One day we'll relax about adversarial appearances between us enough. Somebody will notice all this harmony and conclude that neither of us is necessary to the process anymore."

           Ralph countered, "Well we going in for the usual tonight or have you a notion toward something otherwise?"

           The usual was some ad hoc variation of fine dining and a series of two-cocktail stops at several of a city's celebrated watering holes. Garson noted that Ralph had been dealing earlier with his known-to-very-few fear of air travel in a familiar way: drinking. He'd only seen Ralph Kait falling down drunk a few times. He knew from bygone conversations among his competitor counterparts that Ralph had exposed this side of himself to few. He wondered whether Ralph was selective about who he drank with or just had extraordinary powers of control when drunk.

           "Has Faye found a new job yet?" asked Ralph.

           "I think she's stalling or losing her nerve."

           Garson had earlier confided that last New Year's, he and Faye had come to terms on potential separation and that Garson agreed to not move out until Faye had found a new position. Her concern was that the strain of separation, including the children's welfare, made a further ordeal out of the job search, and she professed she would need a better paying position in the event the separation became permanent.

           The two men would officially be at work together in the morning. Tonight though, no one in the universe was giving a thought about what they were up to. They were accountable to no one until morning. Though Garson, in the role of the one whose business is sought, technically was owed the courtesy of choosing, he normally deferred to the preferences of his friend. However, Garson had long ago learned that his body couldn't afford the luxury of getting wasted two or three nights a week. There were numerous occasions anymore when he drew upon some creative excuse to get out of the evening. At these times he remained in his room for the night, ordered in room service and read, or watched TV. That was the course at the first two stops this week in St. Louis and Tulsa.

           It was while in St. Louis during an afternoon spent with another vendor, a conversation point stirred a recall in Garson's mind that, in fact, an old high school chum he had conversed with at the last reunion, lived here in Seattle. Yesterday, Garson had wrangled his friend's line number out of the local operator at the bank he recalled him working for. They had talked briefly and agreed to have dinner. Don would bring his wife and they would eat downtown at a fashionable restaurant in the financial district. Therefore, Garson had reserved at a downtown hotel, something very out of the ordinary, and one he knew nothing about firsthand. He was confident of evading his commitment to Ralph Kait with perfect candor.

           Realizing that Ralph had already had a good deal more than the two drinks allotted on his own plane, Garson had misgivings about deserting Ralph for the evening. He didn't want to bring about a binge of lonely drinking. He knew of old that solitary drinking was one day going to bring an end to Ralph's career and old loyalties now put him at a crossroads. The car seemed to be the only place to deal with it. As the Camaro wound its way through the Seattle freeway system Garson outlined what he wanted to do with the evening.

           The one thing he should have counted on was Ralph's ability to manage a situation drunk or sober, and he wasn't really drunk yet.

           "What do you think of the potential for making it a foursome and let me expense it?" said Ralph when Garson was finished. "Are they not the kind of people to whom you can explain exactly how this came about?"

           Garson hesitated. Then said, "I've no way to contact them at home. They should be meeting us in the hotel lobby and could well be there already. Don and I go back actually to kindergarten and I think old times would stand the awkwardness as long as the wife wasn't uncomfortable with it -- and she's as much a stranger as you are."

           "Fine then," said Ralph, "Let's just gauge her reaction and if I sense apprehension, I'll talk my way out of it and see you in the morning."

           Being the salesman Garson knew Ralph to be and having seen him work his charm on women before, there wasn't much doubt about the way things would go. Ralph would have no trouble changing his room reservation to Garson's hotel. He had a way of making these things happen no matter what the availability situation was.

           Don and Caroline Larson indeed were already waiting in the lobby of the Cosmopolitan Hotel as the two men entered to register. A rather short conversation between the four of them, following introductions, was all that was necessary to make everyone comfortable with the revised arrangements.

           Caroline was an attractive, finely figured woman in her late thirties, apparently comfortable in her role. In a genuinely cheerful voice she said, "I didn't line up a babysitter and unwrap a never-before worn outfit to spend a different evening than I anticipated. And who knows but I'll get lucky and one of my friends will see me having dinner with three handsome, well- dressed men in Dimitri's.

           "Besides I'll have someone I can talk to when these two get around to old times." She said, nodding in Ralph's direction.

           The dinner went well. Ralph, deploying long cultivated practice, concealed adequately enough his degree of non-sobriety with careful speech, body movement and no further drinking Don and Garson eventually burdened the table talk with anecdotal wool-gathering about childhood and "what happened to..." talk. Ralph had placed himself to one side of Caroline and this enabled two simultaneous conversations to coexist for the time being.

           All conversation was totally convivial and the two school friends eventually got past reminiscence. Everyone was enjoying his or her evening. Caroline was given all the charm a woman in that situation could want, and she reciprocated by low-keying her mother-homemaker role while staying above becoming one of the guys.

           " It's so refreshing to engage in adult conversation away from kids and neighborhood mothers. Since I stopped working I've missed these opportunities. There haven't been many."

           The harmony of Don's relationship with Caroline and her ease with two strangers provoked in Garson thoughts akin to -- but not quite -- envy. It fueled his own melancholy, as he couldn't avoid comparing his own difficulties with Faye on those occasions when she was a part of his professional evenings. Faye had a way of confusing his colleagues on similar occasions by being alternately charming and aloof. More than enough times she had left them confused and even wary.

           Something about Caroline's relaxed composure compelled him to reach out and hug her as that part of the evening reached a close and the Larsons headed home. Actually, trusting girl that she was, she unhesitatingly kissed him, accompanying the hug. It was exactly the sort of kiss it should have been, and in keeping with her personality. It bore newly won affection without setting off alarms in her husband's sense of security. She couldn't know, but her way of handling it, delicately and without perfunctory demeanor, elevated Garson's sense of melancholy further. Garson thought about the moment in the evening when he would have but himself for company and was not eager to get there at all.

           Now alone, the two men headed through the hotel lobby. Ralph suggested it, but Garson would have shortly had Ralph not. The lobby bar illuminated itself dimly across the aisle from the hotel's interior. The nature of the evening, so distant from what it would have normally been for either of them, made it seem too soon to call it a completed night. For separate reasons each man had thoughts on his mind, stimulated by Caroline's presence at dinner. Garson guessed that Ralph's conversation would dwell on the sensual, given his lack of connection with her husband. Garson's own thoughts were merged with a sense of just not wanting to be alone. He drifted back to social evenings with Faye that had once drawn similar perception to that of the Larsons: well balanced as partners in marriage. But, it was no longer. He now felt drawn toward any available situation that provided withdrawal from this oppressive mood.

           Into the bar they went, not so much for alcohol and escape but for unfinished conversation needed just now. A thought was forming in Ralph's mind.

           "Say old buddy, when's the last time you enjoyed some out of town flesh?"

           Garson shook his head, but grinned. "Not that long, but I wouldn't want to try and keep up with you. I still like to keep it friendly."

           They had yet to divulge infidelities with one another, but each knew the other didn't often back away from prospective philandering. Garson had always assumed Ralph regarded it as merely the sporting thing to do. He seriously doubted that many of Ralph's other clients had exposure to that side of him. He couldn't afford to trust all his customer relations in that manner any more than anyone else. Garson was well acquainted with Ralph's wife and they did a fair impersonation of a mutually appreciative couple.

           Garson himself had several years earlier entered the realm of extramarital liaisons. At first it arose out of a need to know further his own sexual dimension. Neither he nor Faye had experimented significantly prior to marriage and they had married young. Garson's early impressions of their lovemaking left him with uncertainties that grew in number as time went along. He and Faye never had more than normal sexual difficulties, but they found feedback from each other difficult to express or interpret. It would be many years later that he understood what he didn't at this moment. He had pursued his first encounter with another woman as much from curiosity as normal testosterone activity. He simply couldn't judge his breadth as a lover from his experience with Faye and he had reached out to at least ascertain what difficulties he didn't have. After that some aspects became habit forming. Months would go by with no thought of the kind and then the search for another opportunity to reassure himself would begin. He felt neither good nor bad about it, but getting away with it became its own thrill. Gamesmanship became the purpose and out of it grew awe and distrust of the basic female persona as he interpreted it. With each passing liaison he drifted further away from trust in the other gender's motives.

           Long later Garson felt certain that Ralph knew what was going to happen next, but not at the time. After several minutes of discussing the evening over the only nightcap they would have, the pair of women working the bar showed up and introduction talk got underway. Garson was no stranger to love for hire either, but his experience was deliberately limited. It had seemed unrealistic to pay for what was really turning out to be easy pickings for married men in many venues. It was Ralph's offering to pop for the total tab that assured Garson that this encounter had become an objective of Ralph's without his being aware of it, but he trusted Ralph.

           Then again, the earlier part of the evening and the affectionate withdrawal of Caroline provoked Garson to respond positively when the woman who selected him made the time honored inquiry, "Are we gonna party?"

           Ralph was already counting out bills from his pocket clip, but ran short and had to ask Garson if he had cash on him, repayable in the morning.

           She introduced herself as simply Dana Lewis. It had not been a busy night for them and Ralph had negotiated a modest tariff reduction. She was attractive in what would now be a Kristin Scott Thomas kind of way. Neither woman dressed like a street walker or a call-girl. Dana could have been an interior decorator on a business call.

           As the two pairs made their way to the elevators, the conversation with Dana relaxed him, although he didn't feel totally comfortable with this yet. In the back of his mind was the awareness that normal horniness, though present, was not the real motivating force at work. He didn't feel so much like sex as he felt the need for the intimate company of this woman.

           They're called "whores" but the term lacks certain connotations in the public mind. It never seemed to account for what their experiences did for their understanding of human nature. They come to understand what motivates a particular john as well as any Stanford MBA, five years into investment banking, knows what motivates a particular client. She had read his behavior and recognized no need for appealing to what she could do for Garson mechanically. Perhaps the evening had also been slow or earlier johns more boring than usual. She was more literate than the genre of prostitute he had stereotyped in his mind. This lessened his fear about what could come of this. He grew confident that a sense of fair play, a kind of truce, mutual and voluntary, was underway now.

           Once in his room, it became clear that Dana would occupy the role of conductor, and this didn't bother him. It was exactly what he would do were he in her place. It lessened the possibility of strong disagreements, made the john more docile and controllable. It was habit and it likely had served her well as a defensive measure. She may well have sensed that he found control women erotic, which he understood and knew to be true.

           The sex proceeded at a leisurely pace. She insisted on washing him, provided a condom, asked his preferences and in a soothing manner applied herself to the task; Garson took a nearly passive role. In time it became apparent he was slow to respond and achieve climax. Various nuances were tried until finally, at her suggestion, he became assertive and she passive. He found he had to psyche himself into believing he was engaged in lovemaking and she recognized this and feigned passion. When the act found its conclusion, the two of them went about what almost any consenting couple does, except that this had business overtones to it.

           Garson began to engage her in casual conversation regarding the practical aspects of her career. It likely had to do with friendly unthreatening chemistry that had been developing between them. It was, of course, aimed at delaying her departure and she was used to that, but his honesty was very plain and she hadn't felt needed that way in a long time. Therefore, she lingered willingly. An intelligent fly on the wall might have mistaken them for people who had known one another for some time. Fear had left the room and perhaps had never entered. He felt compelled to interview her in a style that she immediately found interesting and welcome. Minutes ran by unnoticed while they talked. She became absorbed in his benign interest in many aspects of her career that she never expected her client to display curiosity about. Others mostly inquired about the same obvious ones.

           He had asked a hypothetical question that from anyone else, at the moment, she could easily have felt creepily affronted by. He wanted to know at what level her average weekly income from this activity would have to drop to, that would make her go get an ordinary position in legitimate work.

           She answered, after some thoughtful pause, "about seven- hundred-and-fifty dollars."

           She incorrectly interpreted his look as an acknowledgment of a higher than expected number. He really had no preconception of what that number might be.

           Dana mused for a few seconds, deciding if he was screwing with her head or really wanted to know, but by now there was elemental trust between them. Besides, if she weren't a risk taker she wouldn't ever have come to this trade.

           "There's an awful lot about this line of work no john ever thought about. For example, I doubt anyone ever considers the cab-fare bottom line" she said, "And then there's wardrobe. Men in heat tend to get 'rippy' at times; and fashion does change regularly, even for us."

           Then she got to a point he didn't think of but should have, given his budget planning experience. She asked, "What sort of medical plan do you think this job provides? There's as much opportunity for injury or physical harm as you could imagine, only I can't take anyone to court very well can I? Then there's no retirement plan, either."

           In recognition of the day when gravity won and her body no longer commanded the minimum rate she would do this for, she'd long ago began investing in income real estate.

           "I've got things on a schedule that should get me comfortably out of this when the choice is no longer there to make."

           On and on it went for a while as he fought to delay her leaving, and the more she talked the more her concern about leaving waned. In the course of the next twenty minutes her partner phoned Garson's room from the lobby twice, asking to speak with her, imploring her to get back to her post in the bar, What the hell are you still doing up there? kind of talk. But still she stayed until it became embarrassingly clear it was time to go. Garson offered to pay her what cash he had left for her extended absence from her prospects, but she declined. They had been uncommonly gentle with one another.

           Then the capstone of the episode came forth. They were both dressed and standing ten feet apart with her hand on the doorknob. Her face was mapped with intense deliberation, when she abruptly closed the space between them and kissed him gently on the mouth, murmured "be well," and was gone.

           Garson stood where he was for a long moment in thought, savoring what he found to be the highlight of a day replaced by a vacuum.

           His thoughts ran on for most of the night. Sleep came briefly before the new day began. He met with Ralph for breakfast in the hotel coffee shop. They went through their day just as they would have otherwise. Ralph made him take his unwanted share of the borrowed cost back and the two men never discussed the evening again. He never followed up on promises with the Larsons to keep in touch.

           Months later, he phoned the answering service number Dana had given him. It was legitimate, as was the name she had used. The service agent took his number and message, but no return call ever came and he was happy with that.

About the Author (click here) © 2000 Jerry Houle, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

Author Notes

           This piece grew out of a somewhat related experience I had in the mid- seventies. It reflects a strong emotional mood that followed me for several weeks after the event. The characters are based on real people, actually composites of people in two cases. The piece is meant to illuminate the irony of finding real human contact within an act of faux human contact. Whether this effort merits publication or not, the author would much appreciate any guidance that could come from a reading of it.


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