Dance With a Stranger


On a cloudless Tuesday in April, Isabel Reavener approaches the Starbucks on Portland St. and pauses to check her watch. It is five minutes before five. She doesn’t want to be late, but she doesn’t want to be early either. And she’d rather not be caught standing outside like a frightened child. There’s a flutter in her chest but she squares her shoulders as her mother taught her and enters through the open door, hoping he will have arrived before her and they won’t have trouble recognizing each other.

It’s been two years since Simon died of prostate cancer, and she misses him every day. After forty-eight years they had learned to accommodate each other’s foibles, and yet she still shakes her head when she finds last week’s newspaper on the floor beside the big easy chair. It takes her a moment to realize that she, herself, must have left it there. The sharp sting of her grief has eased, but when she comes home at the end of the day, she has no one to tell about the skinny kid on the skateboard pulled by a standard poodle or the closing of the small bodega on the corner. Her children have their own lives.

Morrie Arkaider is sitting inside at a small table against an exposed brick wall that gives him full view of the door. There are maybe a dozen tables, most occupied, many by single people working away on laptops. He is taken aback by the modern furnishings, the shiny metal tables and chairs, the elegant counter, the polished surfaces. He remembers mismatched claptrap chairs and shaky tables in the last coffee house he visited. He doesn’t feel quite comfortable in this one. He has the sense that he doesn’t belong, that it is for college students and artistic types, not working people like himself. He’s used to coffee in a Styrofoam cup picked up at a deli.

He watches as people come in but none of them looks anything like the serious but intelligent face he has seen on the computer and besides, they are all too youthful. Mostly twenties and thirties, he thinks, but he is no longer able to guess ages. Everyone looks young.

He wishes he ignored his son’s advice and remained the self-sufficient man he became after his second wife left him for a friend of his. There had been lots of women in those days, casserole women, he called them, always checking up on him with dinner in hand. But he had been hurt badly and had opted for the safety of bachelorhood. It is only because Mark, his middle son, filled out the forms for an online senior match program that he is here.

Aware that his body is softening, Morrie is still surprised when he sees an old man in the mirror as he shaves. His cheeks seem to be falling into soft folds, creating furrows on each side of his mouth rather like a puppet. He used to be very particular about his appearance. Now he doesn’t notice smudges and stains the way he did. Maybe it’s too late for him. He looks down to see if his socks match.

An older silvery blond woman wearing sunglasses, a white linen shirt, alligator green slacks, and some sort of wooden necklace appears in the door and looks around. Not too bad. Her hair is wavy, cut short in a way that frames her face. Nice eyes he notices when she removes her glasses. A little thick around the waist, but then who isn’t? She scans the room until she spots him and tilts her head quizzically.

“Isabel?” He stands too quickly and then grabs the chair just in time to keep it from toppling over backwards.

She nods with a slight smile. No spring chicken, but okay. She fiddles with her necklace as she walks towards him.

A thatch of thick white hair falls across his high forehead. Tall with prominent cheekbones and white bushy eyebrows, he steps forward and holds his hand out to her.

She is relieved when his handshake is dry but firm. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long.” He looks familiar but she can’t quite place him.

“No, no. I got here a few minutes early. I wasn’t sure where it was. I’m Morrie. Please . . .” He gestures to the seat. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Thanks, a latte for me.” Now she has it, he looks like that senator from the Madoff hearings. It will be hard not to feel like a witness.

He heads over to the elegant counter and looks up at the menu listings. It’s worse than going to the cell phone store with their endless versions of features he doesn’t know how to use. All he wants is a decent cup of coffee. Finally he says to the young man behind the counter, “I’ll have two lattes.”

“Venti?”

He looks around for inspiration. Nothing speaks to him. He gambles, “Sure.”

She watches from the table. His back is still straight with broad shoulders. Thank god for that. Her only other meeting was with a man with Parkinson’s disease who could barely hear. She felt sorry for him but it had been hard to have a conversation. And this one is wearing a blue oxford shirt neatly tucked in with khaki pants. Presentable. And hopefully all the parts work.

Morrie feels like he’s having a job interview without any guidelines. What is he supposed to say? “So,” he says as he places the cups on the table, “I’m a little rusty about how this goes. Have you done it before?”

Isabel stirs her coffee. Her fingers wrap around the warm cup. “It does seem a bit strange. Who ever considered meeting people via computer? I guess I never thought about going out at this stage of my life… but here we are.”

He shrugs and sips the latte. Maybe he shouldn’t have waited so long to meet someone. It’s hard to figure out what to say. She’s probably not interested in last night’s Red Sox game, even if it went into extra innings. “This coffee isn’t bad. What is it? Just lots of foamy milk?”

There is a white moustache across his mouth. Now he looks like a thin Colonel Sanders. Isabel debates how she should tell him. She resists reaching over with a napkin as she would have with Simon but instead gently wipes her own upper lip and asks, “Do I have milk on my face?”

“No.” He doesn’t take the hint but sits with an almost military bearing.

His ex always told him that he did all the talking, leaving no space for anyone, or else he interrogated people. “Well, what do you like to do? I mean how do you spend your time?” It is the best he can come up with and he hopes it will show interest in her.

She notices that he stretches his nose in a funny way when he talks, almost a sniff, but soundless. She fingers her beads. “I paint. Furniture, that is.”

He frowns, eyebrows arched in confusion. The murmurs of other conversations rise and fall as if heeding an invisible conductor. It is getting warm in the shop. He wonders if all those windows open. Beads of sweat form on his forehead.

Seeing his confusion, Isabel explains further. “I go to tag sales and flea markets and buy old wooden chairs and tables. Then I fix and clean and paint them.”

“Why? Do you do something special to them?” Morrie blots his brow with a napkin and automatically wipes off the moustache. This time he licks his upper lip.

Isabel is fidgeting with the clasp on her straw handbag. “Wait a moment. I’ll show you.” She takes out a series of photos and hands them across the table to Morrie. It’s easier than explaining.

Each is painted in a different theme. Some have an art deco style, others have detailed pictures of marine life or princesses. What would someone do with these, Morrie wonders. “Do you sell them?”

“On eBay.”

He looks surprised and tries to picture a house full of these oddly painted pieces. Maybe it’s a new style that he’s missed. “Is there much of a market for them?”

She sits up straighter in her chair, pride in her expression. Does he think she’s one of those old biddies who sits around and knits socks for everyone she knows? She arches slightly. “Well, yes. It’s not going to make me rich but it does keep me pretty busy.”

She puts the photos back into an envelope and places her bag on the corner of the chair. It gives him the opportunity to notice her breasts. Still nice, he thinks. Like Marjorie, his first wife. He always was a tit man. Who cares if she paints furniture.

He feels so awkward. He might as well be a teenager again, but instead of worrying about acne, he hopes he won’t pass gas. “Have you always done this kind of thing?”

“No. I was a landscape designer before I retired,” Isabel says. “What about you?”

He doesn’t have much of a smile but he is leaning forward with his elbow on the table. That’s a good sign. She can smell the coffee on his breath. She wants him to be interested even though she’s not sure about him. “I worked for the police in the detective unit,” he says.

A cop. Well this is different. Simon was in sales. “And now?”

“I love to play golf.”

Damn, even the word bores her to tears. Her parents lived on the golf course. She can still remember the yeasty smell of the locker room when she was quite small as she waited for her mother to change. She knows she is being petty but golf, anything but golf. Feeling a bit muddled, she tries to remember if she walked Buddy before she left. It would be a good excuse to get out of here. Just a little longer and she can depart gracefully. “And when you’re not playing?”

As he spoons another half packet of sugar into his latte, some granules scatter across the table. He stirs slowly. “I do some private detective work for a friend’s PI agency. I track down evidence of UFO’s.” He’s curious to see her reaction. Her eyes widen and he notices that they’re a chocolate brown with long lashes and deep laugh lines. She looks younger, softer, more approachable. He wonders what it might be like to be in bed with her. It’s been so long since he’s been with a woman that he finds the idea a bit intimidating.

“Seriously?” She’s not sure he isn’t teasing her.

He nods, face blank as he draws lines in the sugar with his finger. A ray of sun bounces off the grains, turning some into an iridescent blue against the metal tabletop.

“Get paid. Pretty well, too.” That part usually surprises them. His first wife would have been horrified by his work, but she would have spent the money fast enough. He’s fully aware of the irony that this unexpected work in addition to his pension has put him in a better financial situation than he’s ever been before. He watches closely for Isabel’s response.

She looks around. Every table is occupied with at least one person and a companion computer. Even if he is one of those nutcases, she can’t be in too much trouble here. “Well, where do you go?”

“Everywhere. We specialize in gathering data for interested people. You’d be surprised how many wealthy individuals and organizations care about these things. All over the world.” He knows that it all sounds crazy, and he’s not even sure what he believes. He only got involved when his friend asked him to help, and it brings in a lot of money for the agency. Besides, it’s stimulating.

She folds her legs under the chair as she tries to formulate a question that isn’t ridiculous. Maybe he’s one of those conspiracy theorists or zealous UFO hunters she has seen on the Discovery Channel. Well, at least he has some diversions beyond sports. And he’s not bad looking. Almost distinguished. She likes broad shouldered men. Probably they remind her of her father. “What kind of data do you gather? I mean how does this work?”

“Well, for instance, last year there was a sighting. Some turquoise arcs of light in the night sky near Needles, CA. About two hundred people witnessed it. The agency got called in to check the story out.” His expression doesn’t change; he is just reporting what happened. He can tell that she is intrigued but dubious. He’s good at reading body language from his years as a detective.

“So what did you find out?” She leans forward and looks into his eyes. They’re clear pale blue hooded by narrow ridges of flesh with faint lashes. She tries to imagine what’s behind them.

“There was clearly something there so we did some further checking.” Something about being with a woman brightens his usually gray world. He’d forgotten this feeling. He doesn’t know if it’s this particular woman, but she’s here before him. He notices her perfume. A kind of flower. Gardenias? Jasmine? He wants to keep her interest. “You’ve heard of Area 51?”

It rings a vague bell but her memory isn’t what it used to be. She shakes her head.

“It’s a top secret government installation in Nevada, “ he says. “Experimental stuff. Spy planes like the U-2. Weapons testing. Some say evidence of alien craft.”

“And?”

Morrie is soft spoken and not insistent, just direct. “Well, it turns out those lights came from that direction in Nevada and shortly afterwards a number of government vehicles, first helicopters and later cars and trucks, converged on the site. They stayed for a short time and then left. The proverbial “men in black.” There were all those witnesses including the police. We guessed that they were cleaning up the debris. Maybe radioactive waste. There was nothing left but some scorched earth when we went out to the spot where they were seen.”

“I don’t understand. What does it all mean?” Now she slumps back into her chair. This is all a bit fanciful for her taste, but she can’t help a certain fascination. The couple sitting behind him is not so young. Neither is speaking much. They look like they’ve run out of words, like they’ve said everything already.

“We did get some acknowledgement from the Air Force that they were conducting a test, but it’s all very hush-hush. Top secret. I’m not really supposed to talk about it.” He likes impressing her.

“So what do you believe? Have you seen anything yourself?”

“Well I’ve gone to a few conventions. At first I expected to see trekkies, but they’re always dressed in business suits. Intelligent, CEO types. Some with Ph.D.’s.”

Isabel waits to see what else he will add.

“Did you ever hear of Ed Grimsley?”

She shakes her head.

“He uses fourth generation night vision goggles, military grade, and takes people out where they can see odd activity in the sky.” Whoops. He may have gone too far. She looks like she’s about to bolt.

Now she’s not sure what he’s talking about or what she is doing with this man. “Have you yourself seen anything?”

“Yup. There were clusters of white lights. Sometimes still and then they moved at odd angles. Definitely not satellites. They stopped and maybe moved again, horizontally or vertically. You can check it out on the web.” He wants her to see that he’s not crazy, but he enjoys watching the disbelief and curiosity struggle with each other in her expression. She was probably very attractive when she was young, and she’s not too bad now.

He looks at her nearly empty coffee cup and realizes that he wants their conversation to continue. And further, he’d like to see her again, soon. “Would you like some more coffee? Or a pastry?”

Now she wants to know what he really thinks about all this. “What do you believe you saw?”

As Morrie stands, he smiles for the first time. “Would you be interested in going to see them yourself? I could take you.”

Her first instinct is to refuse but she catches herself before the words slip out. It’s an opportunity to do something she’s never done before and, Lord knows, she can squeeze it into her schedule. “Yes, I’d enjoy it very much.”

He feels a stirring, an excitement he hasn’t felt in a long while. Maybe his son isn’t so foolish. “Next Monday evening?”

A wide grin crosses her face. At worst, it’ll make a great story to tell, staring into space with fancy high-tech glasses and a strange man. At best, who knows where it could go. “It’s a date.”


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