I stepped out on the long back porch to have a smoke while I waited for my tea water to boil. It was still dark, the kids were in bed, but after a poor night's sleep, I was done tossing and turning. It was only slightly after 5am; the kids weren't expected to be at their grandmother's until ten; I just needed a little reset. Custody arrangements, divorce proceedings, and running my business were more than enough, and now my soon-to-be ex-wife had skipped out on drug rehab, bungling arrangements made with the court to help her retain custody rights. I closed my eyes briefly, my head leaning on the support post, and let the patter of the rain on the roof soothe me.
It was still dark. My eyes snapped open because I knew I'd heard a voice; human; it was close. I scanned the yard. On the far side, I saw a pale lump near the fruit trees. There was just enough light to see it was a person, and I ran from the porch, shirtless and barefoot.
"Aribella!" I crouched next to my neighbor, seeing the fallen ladder under the tree next to us.
"Oh, Ari, oh my God..." I touched her wrist, and face, asking her to talk to me. She moaned, moving slightly. Her skin and clothes were wet and cold.
"I'll get help," I said, standing.
She moaned, "Please don't leave me, Dylan."
Her voice was so weary, and it scared me, but only for a few seconds.
"Ari, Ari, can you wake up and hold on to me? Please. Come on."
Somehow, I lifted her to an upright position, and the pain from moving brought her fully awake, crying out sharply, gasping for air. I decided to put her over my shoulder when I saw how much her arms were shaking from cold, pain and exertion. Even in pain, she was still herself, laughing raggedly, mumbling about being a "sack of potatoes." That encouraged me, and I went quickly to the part of the porch closest to her door, which was already standing open a few inches.
In the seven months since Aribella had moved in next door, I had never actually stepped over the threshold, only chatted at the door, and on the porch. She had been in our apartment many times, although never for as long as I might have liked, and every time because of my two youngest, Loren and Caleb. They had delighted in showing her their toys, their clothes, and their artwork, but mostly loved that she would read to them or tell them stories. Loren, in her five year old innocence, had asked me if Aribella had books inside of her. Since Ari was a writer, I had told my daughter, 'Yes'. Two year old Caleb seemed much more interested in playing with Ari's long curls as stories unfolded. Yes, she had been a frequent visitor. But, I had not been inside her apartment.
Now, my eyes adjusted, and I saw the walker that had belonged to her late husband. Perfect. I sat her in it, leaning her against the wall, then ran for a towel from the bathroom.
It took about five seconds for me to see attempting to dry her while she still wore wet clothes just wasn't going to work. I told her the problem, and she weakly tugged at her sleeve. "Take them off," she said.
A shot of fear and wonder went through me, and self-loathing. I reached for the front of her blouse, her favorite blouse, made of the thinnest crinkled cotton gauze and lace, and tiny buttons at the front that never stayed in place. I couldn't count how many times I had seen her chest, and most of a breast now and then, before she absentmindedly buttoned up again.
"Dylan..." her voice was raspy.
I stopped thinking, and rapidly undressed her. She wore no panties, and I wasn't conscious of what I saw, only that there were none to remove. Once again, I hoisted her, as she whimpered, and turned towards the living room.
The queen bed she owned when she moved in had not fit into either bedroom, so she set it up in her living room, and there it had stayed, though she subsequently purchased a double bed for the small bedroom.
I laid her on the bed, which was still made, and covered her with a quilt folded across the foot of the bed.
It wasn't enough. Ari was ice cold and shaking.
I turned on the heater, and stole the blankets from the other bed. The thing was, the entire unit was freezing from her door being open, and I also needed to get dry. I stripped off my pants, then remembered my tea water, and growled, throwing the only other towel visible around my waist, running to shut off the water as fast as possible. Before exiting, I wrote on our kitchen's dry erase board,
'Ari is sick. I am next door. Love, Dad', knowing my oldest daughter would see it.
I raced back, locking the door behind me, and got into bed behind Aribella, under every blanket, briskly rubbing her thighs, arms, hands, until she grasped my hand, pulling it around her, and curled into a fetal position.
She was softly crying. I wrapped myself around her, now able to see her neck in the morning light. A bruise, though I instantly knew it was not from the fall, because it was already healing, equally yellowed and dark.
I held her, full of questions, as my greater body heat warmed us both. Ari relaxed and slept, and I fought hard to stay awake for all of five minutes before crashing in the soft, quiet warmth of my neighbor's bed.
I slept fitfully, memories replaying of my second failed marriage, but more of interactions with Aribella. She had spoken very little with me in the beginning, yet talked with my children, letting her guard down. I had told myself it was probably best, because I sure didn't need to taint her life with the mess that was mine. She had treated my intermittently present cast of urchin players like little adults, though the oldest was only ten, and limited to two weekends a month. I would hear them talking and sharing from inside our apartment, but every time I went out to the covered back porch that connected us, Ari mostly listened to me, though her few remarks were kindly. I detested myself for noticing she was crying once or twice as I went out when she was alone, yet saying nothing to her. I felt even worse that I noticed she never wore a bra, and had smiled inside when those tiny buttons on her favorite blouse slipped from the stretched holes, allowing me a glimpse of Ari's pretty little breasts. It was a vicious circle of gratification and guilt. I wanted to know her and didn't know what to say, and consistently ended up talking about the kids, my marriages, and my frustrations. The pain of my failure. Yes, all of THAT, so how could she possibly have any interest?
Aribella herself had done nothing to draw me, though when I put all the good with all the hopes and errors she had, I was stricken with need and want for her. She didn't think she was special, or that anyone was looking, even when her blouse gaped open tending the garden, or running with the kids. I think the fact she was not trying to flaunt herself had made her that much more appealing. Repeatedly, I swore to myself I would stay away, which I did, until it was the one night each week I have to myself that we both find ourselves quietly relaxing on the porch. One such evening, I told her I was going to have some wine, nothing fancy, red and drinkable, and would she care for some? My 'grand' description caught her off-guard, and she laughed and nodded. We were mostly silent as we drank the bottle, though she commented the wine was fine, and more importantly, "I think it's helping me."
The bottle was gone, and Ari smiled and thanked me. I stood to take our glasses, but she held her glass and looked up at me,
"Dylan, would you care to share a another bottle of wine with me? We could use your glasses. It's a much too fancy red, and quite drinkable..."
Her eyes had gleamed as I nodded, unable to speak, looking into her relaxed pose, seemingly sensuous smile, and open blouse. I didn't need this, and I needed it more than anything else. I needed and wanted her companionship. Bad experiences hadn't eliminated that.
She retrieved the wine, telling me her bottle opener was in storage, and I got mine and opened it, pouring some in her glass first. She said,
"You know we'll finish this, so go ahead and fill it."
She had winked, and I felt it then, a wave of sensual impulse that I couldn't act on...but I could fill her glass, so I did. I did the same to mine, then tasted the wine before sitting. "Well..." she prompted.
"I'm no wine aficionado, but it tastes better, and it IS smoother."
Ari nodded, smiling, and another button came loose. I told her, and she rapidly apologized and buttoned up. After a drink, she began to talk about the past, and, of all things, about her blouse. Suddenly she was sharing, and every silence we had known on that back porch was made up for with her truth, straight from her heart, and her thoughts, and tears.
I wasn't ready. She had known love with her husband I never had with anyone, and I knew it. Her words created vivid images in my mind as she held nothing back, telling me the discoveries of their most sacred moments, and the fun they pursued and found, together. When Aribella began to tell me how disease and injury tag-teamed them for most of their marriage, I didn't know what to say, and she only continued, drawing me into a romance that refused to take second place. She paused, tears pouring, heaving from silent sobs. I wanted to hold her, except she had been taken advantage of since her husband's death, and I didn't want to be in that class of 'no class'.
She lifted to sit up straight, and swiped at her tears.
"He loved how much I loved this blouse, and how happy it made me. He said I glowed, and all my inner beauty came out to play."
She smiled at the memory, indirect light in the night catching on the last of her tears as they dried, her sitting up straight, small breasts moving with her breath under the thin material. She was ten years older than me, though in this instance, ageless, and as seductive in her combined wisdom and innocence as the sun is hot. Her eyes looked up, and the fraction of moon shining caught in her eyes. I had ceased to breathe, waiting to hear any sound she might make. She suddenly turned to smile at me, and took the last sip of wine from the glass. I breathed, and smiled at her.
"The blouse is part of a vow I made to myself, and a security blanket, too, I suppose. I hide in it; old woman in an old blouse is hardly noticeable; I'm safe."
She chuckled, and I shook my head, finding it difficult to fathom she believed she was old and not easily noticed?!
"What was the vow?" I asked.
Ari got up as she spoke, "I simply vowed that I would wear this as I became myself again, and when the time arrives that I am stronger, and the security blanket is no longer usable, I can be happy again. I can feel alright. That time is near, I think..."
She broke then, sitting her glass on the rail, and sobbing into her shirt sleeve. I got up and grabbed her, holding her close as she cried, my mind whirling with 'what now' scenarios. After a few minutes her crying subsided, and I pet her hair soothingly.
"It's going to be alright," I said.
Her voice muffled against my shoulder, she said, "I am sorry, Dylan. I should not have drank the wine."
"It will be okay," I repeated.
I held her for a few minutes, swaying gently, saying nothing, trying not to think. Her voice was soft near my collarbone as she thanked me, "Thank you, Dylan."
She kissed my neck, and said, "Goodnight."
I couldn't utter a word before she was gone; inside her apartment; door closed.
"You are welcome," I said to the night.
The memories of that night stayed with me as I slowly woke up alone, reaching out before I opened my eyes to find emptiness where Ari had been earlier. In the time since 'wine night', we had held hands, and she had squeezed my hand excitedly when clouds drifted away to reveal the moon a few times. I had chosen to let her 'guide and decide' what happened between us. Where did sleeping naked with her fit into that?
I heard Aribella's laugh, and Sasha, my oldest, also laughing. Only a few seconds later, Ari came through her back door, carrying some clothes for me.
"What did you say?! What did you say to Sasha?" I was honestly panicked.
"Oh, Dylan, don't worry. I told Sasha the truth; I fell from the ladder, and you rescued me in the rain, getting soaking wet as you carried me in. I told her after you made sure I was dried and warm, you fell asleep in my living room bed," Ari smiled and laughed, then said, "AND that you are stuck in bed and cannot get up because you needed clothes!"
Unable to contain herself, she doubled over in laughter as she sat my clothes on the bed. When her head dipped forward, she faltered, and fell to the floor with a thud. I jumped to her, and placed her on the bed. Her eyes moved rapidly back and forth over my face, and she closed them tight. She whispered,
"I'm going to be sick."
I grabbed the waste can from the bathroom, and she rolled to her side and vomited into it. I began to move the can, and she held it, moaned, and vomited again. For more than a minute, Ari kept her head over the can as I held it. In this position, I could see again the bruising on her neck. I wanted to ask about it, and when she quietly told me she was done, I set the can down, and eased her onto her back. I got a wet cloth, and washed her face, against weak protest. After removing the waste can liner, and placing a fresh one, I brought a glass of water. She nodded once she had a few sips. I sat it aside, then unceremoniously pulled on the clothes Ari had retrieved for me.
"May I use your phone?" I asked, and she nodded.
I phoned my former mother-in-law, thankful for her support when she agreed to come get the kids instead of me dropping them off, and smiled as she said she was getting into her car as we spoke. She would also take Sasha home to her mom, about half an hour's drive away. When I thanked her and called her by name, she said, "Aw, Dylan, you can always call me 'Mom'. You know that."
She admonished me to get Ari in the truck, and get her to the emergency room. "Yes, Mom," I said, smiling.
Then, the pressing questions I had about the bruises on Aribella became an unthinkable mess, as hospital staff assumed I had put those marks on her, of which there were more, many more, on her body. I was under guard shortly after she went to have x-rays and CT, and it took more than two hours before I was allowed to see her.
"Aribella!" I exclaimed when they escorted me to her exam room.
"Oh, Dylan, I am so sorry, so very sorry."
"Please, " I looked in her eyes, "please tell me...Please."
I held her hands. The security guard nodded, and left, closing the door.
"I have a concussion, and bruised ribs. I mean, the bones themselves are bruised," she shook her head,"I hadn't even known that was possible."
"Are you going to tell me what happened before?" I asked.
There it was again; the impulse to take her into my arms and never let her go; she looked so fragile and desirable. What exactly would I need to do or say to prove to her my love would leave no scar? In the seconds that passed, I understood myself, and that what I felt for her was not obsession; it was love. Would she ever love me? Could she trust my love?
Quietly, she said, "I wanted to be close to someone, and began talking with a man that was nice. He seemed nice. We had messaged, texted, had phone calls. He finally told me he didn't think I was being fair because I wouldn't at least meet for coffee, so I did. We had a good time. The next day, he texted, and I met him again. He asked me to come over to watch a movie, instead of sitting in the bar drinking."
"He changed after we got there," she said in a whisper, looking down, "and he hurt me."
I struggled hold back my anger about what happened, and my hurt, because she had gone to someone else, a stranger, for affection. I couldn't control the tremor in my voice, "Ari, why, WHY didn't you come to me?"
"I was embarrassed, Dylan."
"No, why wouldn't...why not me, what is wrong with ME?! Ari, I would never hurt you. Why wouldn't you come to me, to be...close to someone?
I mean, OKAY, I know I don't have a good track record. Is that it?"
She looked up at me as I asked her, and I couldn't imagine what she saw.
Her own eyes were full of tenderness and care; how could I ever hope to be worthy of her?
"You've been so kind to me, Dylan," she began,"talking, listening, allowing me to be involved with your children, even spending your nights off from being a Dad hanging out with me, keeping me from being alone, holding me back from the brink when you didn't even know it. I listened to you, and I know what you have gone through, are still going through. Despite your own pain, you have been a friend, and I have healed so much. You were good to me, but you never pursued me. How could I ask you to be there for me like that, and risk losing you? I could never hope for you to want me. I mean, I wouldn't presume it for a minute."
I removed my hand from hers, sliding my opened hand against her jawline, cupping her cheek, my thumb gently caressing her opened mouth as she looked at me in shock. I leaned in and kissed her deeply, experiencing her gasp as my mouth left words behind, but told my truth in the most unmistakable way she couldn't possibly misinterpret. I knew I would never forget the feeling of her matching my kiss, her warmth coming through the cotton gown, the rustle, crunch and squeak of the hospital gurney as we wrapped our arms around one another, and the sounds of our breaths mingled with quiet moans.
We broke apart as the doctor tapped twice and entered. Brief discharge instructions admonished her to rest, avoid raising her blood pressure until headaches, nausea, and vision issues resolved, and returning if symptoms worsened. They told her to follow-up in a week with her regular medical provider.
We were free.
I kissed Aribella after I helped her get into the truck, then rested my head partly in her lap and against her side as I stood there on the passenger side, hugging her. Her hands tenderly brushed across my hair my and face, so light at first, then gaining confidence, and rubbing my back, too.
We were both tired, and when I raised up, Ari had her head back, and eyes closed. She needed rest, and so did I.
I drove us home, and escorted her to the door.
"Aren't you coming in with me?" she asked, "Everything with you feels so dreamlike right now, Dylan. It feels so pure. I don't want to be alone if I am not alone anymore."
Ari blushed and I stepped inside, shutting the door, then had her lie down while I made broth, toast, and tea. We ate silently, the hot fluids so perfect, and I smiled as Ari sighed after the last sip was gone.
"Thank you, Dylan. I think I can keep that down."
We talked a few minutes about when the kids would return, and when it finally got quiet again, Aribella looked troubled.
"Are you alright? What's on your mind?" I asked.
She rubbed the tops of her knees, then said, "I want a shower. I want one, but I'm not steady...Do you think you would stay here until I'm done, just in case?"
I told her I would, and cleared our dishes as she went to shower.
A few minutes later, I heard her make a sound from behind the curtain, and asked if she was okay. She hesitated, then told me she couldn't lean forward without getting dizzy, and sighed loudly. I told her I had an idea.
I removed my clothes and pulled back the curtain. She gasped, and I would have, too, but only because of the bruises on her body. I got in, secured the curtain, and wrapped my arms around Aribella when she told me she hadn't wanted me to see her like that. I wanted to yell and cry, and instead, I began to shampoo her hair, then lather all of her carefully. She stayed upright. I rapidly washed myself, then rinsed us both, running out of hot water before our feet were done.
I dried her, too, having her relax on the queen bed, moving from head to toe, her eyes watching me. I hung our towels after I dried myself, and we got under the covers. Wrapped around one another, becoming sleepy, Aribella said she was sorry we couldn't do anything; really sorry.
I told her I was in heaven, just to have her in my arms. Sleep took over.
It was dark, and my hands were empty. My eyes opened as my hands touched cold flesh, void of breath, void of life. It was Aribella, motionless, gone forever..."NOOOOOOOO!" I screamed, then choked on sobs.
"Dylan, Dylan! Wake up! You're alright, it's alright. You are having a bad dream." Ari's voice finally reached me, and when I opened my eyes, her face came close, warm breath on my skin, and her voice caressed me, telling me not to be afraid, and we're together, nothing bad will happen.
I believed her.
When the kids returned the next afternoon, we made mini pizzas and cookies, then I gave them a bath. We all put on pajamas and watched an animated movie as we cuddled in a pile on the queen bed. The children both begged for stories when they were told it was bedtime, so we tucked them into sleeping bags in her bedroom's double bed, and she told two stories, one for each. Overtaken by yawns, Loren and Caleb fell asleep.
I closed the bedroom door behind me, leaving only enough for a sliver of light to shine in. Ari took my hand, and we went into the kitchen, and out the back door onto the porch. In the darkness, our mouths sealed, and Aribella whimpered. My hands rubbed over her soft, flannel pajamas, and every curve of her relaxed, flexed and relaxed from my gentle caresses. It was when I felt her hand close around my erection, stroking it through the flannel, that I came to my senses.
"We can't...Ooohh," my voice was gravelly against the side of her neck,"we have to stop...because of..."
"Dylan, I need you. I want this."
Her words were certain, yet her tone was not, and it was enough to make me take a deep breath and step back. She wasn't ready for me yet, and it wasn't her fault, or mine. This was beyond blame; a situation that would take time to resolve itself within her; I would wait with a full heart. No, neither of us had said we loved the other, though I knew I loved her, and I could wait forever to hear her say it and show it. This woman, finally, was the answer to questions and sorrows my soul had held onto my whole life.
She made me feel unashamedly in love, protective, interested, and I was now hers, when she was healed, and not until then. I broke every rule they throw down for men to follow in relationship, and told her my feelings, building up to tell her I love her. She cried openly, then reached out to hold my face before I could say it, and said, "I love you, too, Dylan."
"But, I didn't say it yet."
Aribella said, "Everything you were just saying means the same thing."
"I love you," I said, simply, "I love you, Aribella."
Notably, in the days that followed, I didn't feel like anything was missing.
We were both happy. But, then I knew what was missing; the blouse that refused to remain buttoned; Ari hadn't worn it since the day she fell off the ladder. I asked about it as I gathered laundry, trying to seem non-committal.
"I threw it away. It was time." She shrugged and smiled, then hugged me.
We drove to the coast that day, walking in the cool, wet sand, laughing as the three children flew a kite, and squealed when the water flowed up over their toes. Our picnic had been made by Sasha and Aribella, and Sasha had asked me if I loved Ari more than I had loved her mother, or her siblings mother. I sat her down on a driftwood log.
"Sasha, the way I feel for Aribella is different, and it is because I grew up a lot. Do you get what I am saying?"
"Dad," Sasha said, "it's okay with me if you love her more. She's nice, and you are way nicer and happier now."
I hugged my daughter, "Thank you, honey."
Then, the day before my Daddy day off, a fortnight from the accident, Caleb was climbing on the fence, and fell. Aribella ran to him, bending over him, lifting him and bringing him inside. He was alright. I put on a cartoon for him.
"I am okay!" She whispered excitedly.
We quietly made a plan to make love after the kids were gone the next day, laughing, and making dinner as anticipation grew.
At long last, the children were asleep, and Aribella and I prepared to sleep, though all I could think of was tomorrow.
She said she wanted to go check something in her apartment, and I went, too. The door was barely closed, and we were tearing clothes off, kissing and biting as we reached her bed, our bodies slamming onto the mattress.
I buried my face between her thighs, relishing the loud moans as she quickly climaxed under my minstrations again and again, with each one making her shake and press into me for more. I raised to kiss her, the nectar of her body sweet in our mouths, and as she held me there, tasting her own pleasure, saying, "I love you, Dylan", I thrust firmly and deeply inside of her for the first time.
I watched her face between kisses, delivering short, deep strokes as waves of orgasms crashed through her, causing her to cry out indecipherably. Impossible to hold back my own orgasm any longer, I held her closely to me, groaning severely as she also came, her body contracting exquisitely around me. In exhausted joy, we held each other.
I told her I loved her, because I never wanted her to forget it, and I told her again, because I never want to forget it, either.