The words over at Three Word Wednesday are plausible, taint, willingly.
That he responded to her flirtations – well, actually initiated the small talk entirely – great pleased Sylvia Plaach.
Even more so, when she considered that she was simply quite rude when he opened his mouth in the first place and commented on her trying to read a battered paperback in the rather subdued light of Hillstone, a cavernous bar and restaurant on Park Avenue South.
She turned to face him, two empty barstools of space between them, frowned and said the light was just fine, thankyouverymuch and just as she got out the much, the lights dimmed even further for the arriving drinking crowd and he smiled and laughed.
It was neither a mocking snicker, nor a schoolboy’s annoying giggle, but a sweet chuckle that swept her in and made her smile.
“Well, now, all bets are off,” she said, constraining the book in her left hand as she wolfed a few strands of potato from a large order of shoestring fries, having had to remind the bartender not once, but twice to bring her a side of mayonnaise for dipping. She chased the fries with a sip from a cold, dry Chardonnay chosen off the wine list, and certainly not the house selection, either.
Sylvia had come to the Hillstone as an impulse, on her way to the train and home, where maybe she’d entertain a warm bath and a microwaved Lean Cuisine and her book. Her $350-an-hour therapist had his offices on Park Avenue and she’d let him berate her for the entire hour (at nearly $6 a minute, she reminded herself) on her ability to be both frigid and annoyingly smug in her interactions with men, even though her heart – and the incessant timer in her ovaries – screamed out for love and a child.
“Nobody likes a bitch,” the psychologist said flatly. “And Sylvia, you are one cold-hearted bitch.”
Taking her seat at the bar of the Hillstone was a knee-jerk reaction to prove she could be warm and open to her possibilities. At the very least, she would be trying.
“Your hair seems to be all mussed up,” she said, turning three-quarters on her rump to face him better.
A smile froze on Gene Strothers’ face, and immediately his lips begin to pale as the blood streamed from his face. He took a quick sip from his gin martini (with its pastel yellow lemon twist and its froth of ice on its surface) and breathed deeply.
“I’ve just come from the gym,” he said with a certain plausible deniability, conscious to bring the slender stem of his glass in for a graceful landing onto the walnut bar without spillage.
It was a white lie certainly, as Gene had not come from a workout - well, not in a general sense of the term. More of a therapy session of his own.
The guys at the office, worried that Gene was painfully shy and thus wound way too tight for their liking (or his), had paid for a massage (generous tip included) at a spa know for its accommodating and attractive Asian staff whose fingers could guarantee the kind of relaxation that was more-or-less legal in the city between consenting adults. The hour had begun with a table shower, where a petite Asian woman introduced herself as “Toni” poured warm water over him and scrubbed him stem to stern with lightly-scented soap. It continued with a relaxing warm-oil massage that turned delightfully and shockingly sexual (he had greatly feared that a bout of performance shyness would strike, but it was not to be in “Toni’s” very gentle and capable hands).
The hour ended (much too soon, he decided) with a glass of cool water and a hug from “Toni,” who wished him well and hoped that he would come again (and sent him off with a wicked little wink and a swat on his backside).
That he even kept the appointment had emboldened him to venture further afoot. Gene looked into the large and inviting bar on his way to the train, walked past the windows briskly, stopped, turned and willingly stepped through the brass revolving door of the Hillstone and slid onto a barstool to continue his most exceptional day in the city.
He swallowed the gin, smiled sheepishly and brought his chin into his right palm, his elbow resting on the bar, and drummed his fingers across his lips.
“Something of a reward, I guess,” he said. “What’s a good workout worth if you don’t cheat a little in the end?”
Sylvia laughed and turned back to her book, feeding herself mayo-laden fries between her lips, then chasing each bite with a sip of wine.
Slightly deflated, Gene turned back to his drink, waved over the bartender and ordered another round. The bartender, a loquacious young black woman, threw a nod in Sylvia’s direction and scrunched her lips into an urgent O at Gene, the prompt dawning across his brain synapse.
“Can I get you another glass of wine?”
“I’d like that very much,” she said, a bit surprised at herself. “I’m Sylvia, by the way.”
“Gene. It’s really great to meet you. What book has all your interest there?”
“Jane Austen. Silly, huh?”
“Not to me. It’s nice to see someone who respects the classics.”
Nearing the end of their second drink, and a conversation that stayed well within the parameters of small-talk, Sylvia turned and looked into the restaurant, then turned back to Gene.
“Let’s continue this over dinner,” she said. “Unless, of course, there’s somewhere you have to be and I’ll understand, completely.”
“No, dinner sounds great,” he said, slightly panicked.
Gene waved for the bartender, who sent for a waiter, whispered in his ear and the pair was escorted to a intimate, candle-lit booth toward the back of the space. Drinks were ordered and the couple chatted over the day’s printed menu.
Sylvia wavered between the seared tuna salad and the split-roast chicken, and decided that the apricot glaze sounded sinfully delicious on the chicken, but flatly opted out of the spicy New Orleans-style dirty rice and substituted another order of shoestring potatoes.
Gene ordered the New York strip, medium-rare, which came with fries and a watercress salad. His palms began to sweat immediately as the waiter left, wondering what she’d think when the plates arrived.
As a slightly obsessive-compulsive individual, Gene was forced by nature to chew his food 27 times on the left side of his mouth, then masticate 27 times on the right. Before he could swallow, he had to tap his chin and lips with his left index finger (he was right-handed) in a sequence of chin-lips-chin-lips.
Was it enough to taint this most excellent day? There was no choice. He couldn’t very well drink his way through dinner.
The plates came and Sylvia tore into the chicken and fries, greedily dipping forkfuls of potato into a cup of mayonnaise and sliding them past her painted lips and munching with gusto.
Gene tentatively sliced off a chunk of meat, gathered up a few strands of crispy potato and began to chew.
After several bites, Sylvia watched with a flat curiosity painted across her face, holding her fork midway between her entrée and her mouth, and wrinkled her brow.
Chin-lip-chin-lip touched, Gene swallowed hard, raised his palms to her and shrugged.
“It’s habit,” he said. “And I’d be really grateful if you wouldn’t stare at me.”
Sylvia reached for her napkin, stood, and walked briskly to the bathroom.
She entered the last stall in the line, listened for anyone else’s breathing, then stuck three fingers deep down her throat, and was nearly silent in bringing up the entree and both orders of fries. Satisfied, she breathed deep, flushed the toilet and made a slow, somewhat dejected stroll to the sinks.
She watched herself sternly in the mirror as she washed her hands, then took several paper towels, ran them under cool water and blotted the mass to her lips. She bit into the knuckle of her right index finger, fretted some more, then brushed her teeth and re-applied her lipstick.
And watched the reflection as she put her hand on her heart and smiled.
Sylvia returned to the table, where Gene sulked over an empty plate, his chin resting on balled-up fists. She put a hand on his shoulder, making him jump slightly, sat and gathered his hands into hers.
“What do you say, can we share a dessert? The warm five-nut brownie with the champagne custard sounds absolutely delightful.”