Jill Marie Denton
Strangelove, Part 1
The chain restaurant’s entry was packed, the parking lot a sea of SUVs and pickups when Jessica arrived. The crowd was no surprise; it was the busiest Sunday night of the year. The bar and lounge areas would be overflowing with football fans in their favorite colors, half-drunk beers and fatty snacks in their fingers. She could already see the chaos inside from her distant parking spot.
It was the ideal night for this rendezvous, though. No one would give a second thought to the quiet pair in the dining room, and their conversation would be muted by the hooting in the nearby sports lounge. The less spying ears, the better. She was already anxious, her heart beating a little too hard as she shifted into park.
She’d driven thirty miles from home, to his neck of the woods, to avoid running into anyone she saw during the workweek. No one knew she was here except for her dinner partner. And the football frenzy also meant her boyfriend would be preoccupied all night treating those who’d overindulged and turned violent on his circling paramedic route.
Guilt, shame and a little terror crept through her as she stepped from the vehicle. She lifted her phone to reread the text she’d received a few minutes before.
I’m here, at the booth in the back corner. Take your time and be safe.
That was it. And that was all she needed to see to get her spine tingling. This meeting would forever change this old acquaintance’s impression of her and potentially her entire life.
Terror grew as she released a deep breath, a pure bundle of nerves as she traversed the lot, pushed open the door and stepped into the crowd. The heat was intense, radiating off the bodies jammed into every inch of floor space. The din of laughter, cheering and shouted conversations droned in her ears as she squeezed between tubby lads and warmly dressed ladies, negotiating away from the bar and toward the dining room. She squeezed into as little space as possible until the crowd thinned out enough to regain her breath. On the threshold, she paused, gazing out over the tables and meeting the stormy gray gaze of the man she’d been seeking.
He took her in with a slow, pleased smile, rising to greet her properly as she apprehensively approached. Towering a foot over her, he hunched a bit to meet her gaze warmly. His goatee was a little longer nowadays, styled with wax and with some silver streaking through the brown. His hair was just as salt-and-peppered, cropped short to accentuate a strong jaw, high cheekbones, and the thick-gauge silver hoops in each ear. In the open V-neck of his smooth black tee, a polished steel replica of Thor’s hammer gleamed. He kept his massive palms at his sides, thumbs tucked into his front pockets.
She debated whether to embrace him or not, but she held back, grasping at her purse strap. His leathery, musky scent flooded her senses anyway.
“Wow, Jessica. I haven’t seen you in years. You look great,” he greeted, his voice a little gravellier than she remembered. “I was really happy you called.”
Jessica nodded anxiously, gesturing to his seat. “You do, too. I’m sorry I made you wait.”
He shook his head, motioning to the opposite bench and sliding back onto his. “It’s no trouble. Sobriety checkpoints are going to be a bitch on your way home, so be careful. And I was willing to meet you halfway, for the record.”
“I felt better meeting you out here. I know it’s probably stupid.”
He sobered a bit, narrowing his gaze as she shrugged out of her heavy overcoat. The tension ebbing off her from across the three-foot table churned his stomach. And he understood the feeling better than anyone. He’d been in her shoes years before. He’d made it through the initiation, through the training and into the lifestyle. It was only as weird, as taboo and as dirty as someone made it out to be.
And her mind was hustling, turning this situation, the potential joy and release of it, into a terrifying proposition with each passing second.
“No, no way,” he contested, eager to turn the tide of her worry. “None of this is stupid, I assure you. Not the curiosity, not the questions and certainly not the ups and downs you’re going through. A little shocking to me, maybe, but not stupid.”
“I bet you replayed my voicemail a dozen times, convinced I’d been abducted by an alien or something.”
“No denying that. I never expected that call. But people change and people learn. That’s what you’re here to do, right?”
“I mean, I guess. At least initially. But I was surprised you even agreed to meet me.”
Jessica’s self-deprecating gaze lifted to watch Garrett’s stormy eyes turn up in the gentle expression she recalled so easily. She’d met him years before when she’d worked as a secretary at a local college. He’d been her manager’s boyfriend back then, showing up unannounced with flowers, lunches and coffees routinely and always stopping by Jessica’s desk for a kind word or compliment on his way back to the boss’s office. She’d always found him strikingly attractive, mysterious and dangerous, even if his industrial, heavy metal look wasn’t necessarily her taste. They began following each other on social media back then though she hadn’t seen him in person in a very long time.
He sat forward again, resting his muscled forearms on the table. Twisting symbols in blues and charcoal grays stained his skin from wrist to elbow. She recognized them from years before and she couldn’t help fixating on them as he spoke in a deep, gentle tone. “I’ll never turn down the chance to talk about this. It’s something I enjoy, something I’ve worked hard to be good at. And I’m happy you’re so curious and courageous about it.”
“Curious, sure, but courageous might be too strong a word.”
“I don’t think so. You called me. You could’ve ignored the wanting. Or you could’ve went online, found someone there. Maybe someone that wouldn’t know your history or personality and probably wouldn’t care to learn it. It would’ve been easier, with fewer strings attached. Instead you took a gamble, assumed I’d help you out. I appreciate your forwardness and your phone call, even if you feel a bit awkward about it now.”
“You’re the only person I’d ever ask,” Jessica admitted after releasing a deep breath. “I knew what my old boss was into, what her weekend hobbies entailed. I saw the foundation-covered bruises enough times to draw some conclusions. But she still showed up to work every Monday relatively intact.”
Garrett sat back with a snicker. “Sure, but if we’re being honest, I was a different man back then. Fun memories but it ran its course. I’m much happier now anyway.”
She gestured to his left hand where a black chain was tattooed around his ring finger. “I see that. Everything’s good at home?”
He nodded with a proud smile. “Xander’s starting preschool next month. Gwen’s a nervous wreck, afraid to let him out of her sight for so many hours, but once she sees him having fun with the other kids, she’ll loosen up.”
Jessica’s attention shifted to her lap where her hands were folded. She just had to ask. “Garrett, what on earth is she thinking, letting you…”
He halted her with an outstretched palm. “She doesn’t let me do anything. There’s never been a need to ask permission. I was upfront about it from the beginning. This is a business I run, a job I do. I service clients. I cater to their needs just like any other professional. I didn’t ask for permission to work at the body shop all day, either. This is no different.”
“This is a little different,” Jessica retorted, keeping her voice low. “This isn’t a job that gives out W2s and has potted plants in the waiting area.”
“No, it’s not. But I keep this business, its clients and its demands, apart from my life. I love her and my son more than anything on the planet. She gets this fascination of mine. And she supports it. She knows what it does for my self-esteem, how it makes me feel, the rush I get from it that nothing else gives me. I don’t expect other people to get it, but it works for us.”
Jessica released a slow breath. “I don’t get it, at least not yet. So, she knows who you…”
“She knows about every client, every appointment. She shares the income I bring in from them. And there are non-disclosures involved. You have nothing to worry about.”
“Okay, I guess I’ll take your word for it. My boyfriend has no idea about any of this. I guess that makes me the bad person, then.”
“Not even a little,” he cajoled, his eyes softening again. “This is just a Q-and-A session. You’re not even sure this is right for you yet. I can understand not bringing it up to him right now. He might not understand and probably has the same awkward feelings about it as you do. And he certainly wouldn’t be able to answer your questions. All this guilt you feel, the shame and the worry, it’s all par for the course. Society does an awesome job at convincing people that what makes them happy, what makes them feel good is morally wrong. I used to think so, too. Then I met someone who changed the way I felt about it, who helped me forward when I was too worried about what other people thought. Maybe you’ll let me be that person for you. Then, once you know what you like and once it’s not so scary anymore, your guy can take it from there. But only if that’s what you want.”
“I’m here right now, despite my misgivings, trying to convince myself of all that. I’m not as scared as I was when I got here. Still shaking a little, but you’re helping.”
“Good, I’m happy to,” he replied, sitting back as the server approached. With their drinks ordered, she retreated into the swamped bar area. “There’s a process involved with this and it’s gradual, like I said on the phone a few days back. No one with any sense of responsibility or decency throws someone new into the scene without a lead-in. And I’d never do that to you, anyway.”
Jessica’s breathing was evening out, the insistence and kindness in his gaze doing wonders for her conscience. She didn’t know him well at all. He was no more than a social media friend nowadays. But somehow, inexplicably, she felt comfortable around him. She had years before and did still, sitting here casually chatting with him. He could’ve seemed imposing, solid and giant as he was, but his smile, the gentle flicker in his eyes and the way he tipped his head considerately when she spoke calmed her instead.
“I guess I know you wouldn’t throw me to the wolves or I wouldn’t be here, right?”
He shrugged easily. “Makes sense. That’s something to remember later on. And Jessica, I assure you, I have no interest in pushing you into something you don’t want. But if you want it, if you want to see what this is all about, I’ll show you.”
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