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Sunday Fiction Feature: Five or Ten

Dear Readers, it's Sunday. Jane has, at long last, caught up with time. We are on schedule to begin a new week, in our new offices, with some new clients. But, we must never forsake the old-- the familiar-- the comfort of a good read, something apart from stats and charts and musings on who buys what, where.

Today, for our Sunday Fiction Feature, we have the beginning of a story told in...third person, singluar. It's not what you may be used to. Jane experimented with this type of story-telling some years ago-- so we hope you will bear with us throughout this story, and read beyond its clearly eclectic style.

The story, Five or Ten, is about life as a single woman. Life in the dating lane... or not. Decide for yourself...

Five or Ten: Part I

When you finally slide into that last cold, metal seat in the back of Ballroom #4, at the airport Holiday Inn, the biggest hotel in town, you know exactly what to expect. You’re busy mumbling under your breath, cursing Melissa Appleton for convincing you to attend this conglomeration of pitiful humanity gathered in this gargantuan room. Just because Melissa found help for her inadequacies listening to Dr. Paul Winston, doesn’t mean you will. On the contrary, Melissa, despite being your best friend from the journaling class you took last winter, is a 'color in the lines' kind of person, and you, you’re more a 'burst out laughing in church' kind of a girl. Cheesh! The dismal face she made that one time you popped a spoonful of chocolate raisin ice cream in her mouth could have frozen Darth Vader in his tracks. Honestly, how could she convince you to come here today?

“Give it a chance, Barbara,” she’d chided you on Wednesday night, waving that wine cooler around the smoky barroom like it was a magic wand. “What have you got to lose? Dr. Paul Winston is THE personal self-help guru these days. If he can’t help you quit smoking, no one can.”

“I don’t need a guru,” you retorted, taking a nice, long drag on your cigarette, blowing the smoke in Melissa’s eyes. But she’d got to you. When the big lummox on your left leaned a little too close, blocking your sinuses with an unhealthy dose of musky aftershave, winking at you as you moved away to give him space  (he looked like he needed space; his space, your space, Melissa’s space, outer space, whatever!), you decided that Dr. Paul Winston couldn’t be any worse than this by a long shot!

And so, here you are today.

Dr. Paul Winston; you already know what he looks like, though you’ve never even glanced at one of his books. You could pick him out of a crowd at 100 paces. Glancing around the room, you wonder how many in this shrill crowd of 1500 are repeat visitors. According to Melissa, Dr. Winston’s lectures are so illuminating people travel in large groups, by bus, to bask in the flame of his aura. You have trouble imagining that.

In your mind, he isn’t big enough to exude an aura to be basked in. No, he’s probably small, five foot seven maybe, very thin, with a suit coat that hangs on him like wet seaweed. Of course, there are heavy, square glasses covering tiny, somewhat blue eyes that he uses to squint blindly at the glob of people soaking up his every word. You’re fairly certain thtat Dr. Winston sports a full mustache, his only show of masculinity, and he combs thinning blond hair over the bald spot on the top of his head.

Okay, then, you peek at your wristwatch and imagine him this very minute hurrying down the center hall outside the double doors you just popped through, banging a large attaché case full of self-help books (written by the master himself, of course) against his bony legs, and you grin to think of him struggling to lift that dog-eared thing up on the lectern to retrieve his notes for this speech. He’s ten minutes late. Honestly, isn't he professional enough to be on time?

What finally walks into the room, eleven minutes late, is even more astonishing than you expected; it--he-- is something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. The man that saunters into the room swinging a red leather briefcase at his side is six feet tall, at least. He's huddled into a suit that seems two sizes too large, a suit that matches his shoes-- loafers that would fit a duck. As he approaches the stage, he pauses to push heavy wire-rimmed glasses up his thin nose. Then, with the ease of a man who is used to taking steps two at a time, he bounds up the steps to the lectern.

He sighs, sets the briefcase on the inner shelf, and stares into the audience. After an eternity, he clears his throat. The room grows large with silence. Dr. Paul Winston opens his mouth and speaks.

You almost fall off of your chair. Dear God, his voice is thrilling. He sounds like God. You can see his eyes, all the way from the back of the room, and they're not milky or dim at all, but a dazzling blue that glows through his glasses and settles over you like a silk wrap. You want to resist him, but you can’t. He had you with, "Good afternoon."

Okay, so he is small, mousy even, but he exudes charm from every angle. How could you have imagined he would be unattractive? He croons his lecture like a love song. The syllables come out with slow deliberation, caressing each and every audience member personally. His hands grip the sides of the lectern possessively, boldly, and you can’t take your eyes off of them.

They’re beautiful hands-- large, with big knuckles, slightly grotesque, but you sense strength in them. You can feel them on the small of your back, feel his warm touch caressing bare skin, sinking lower to cup your…

Now he’s looking directly at you. Lecturing just to you. You realize you have no idea what he’s been saying, but you want to savor it, so you take a deep breath and try to pay attention. The word are unimportant, all you care about is the cadence, the sound, the intenseness of that voice, so deep and compelling, it carries all the way to the back of the room without a microphone, and it makes your thighs sweat.

He begins to pace, but it's not nerves. He’s only collecting his thoughts. He’s full of confidence, comfortable in his place, completely in charge. In the middle of a sentence assuring everyone that smoking is not a crime, although we, in America, have come to treat it as such, he pauses and looks out into the audience and you feel him search you out, penetrating your gaze. His stare crawls into your breast and pulses there, like a lover’s touch. You put your hand up to your throat, feeling the heat rise to your face.

“So, you see," he says lazily, "you CAN quit smoking. Every one of you.”

You believe him. You wanted a cigarette desperately when you arrived, but now, now you just want one thing—Dr. Paul Winston. Now all you want is to get Dr. Paul Winston alone and find out if what’s happening is really happening. Except—what is happening? Is this your imagination? Is he really speaking directly at you? All this talk about how he used to smoke three packs a day and then, well…it had to be...of course... but, Melissa might have told you.

“My wife badgered me for years.” He smiles as he says it. A wry smile, you think. “She refused to let me smoke in the house. Believe it or not, I crept out to the back porch, morning, noon, and night, just for that smoke. It got nippy out there in sub-zero weather during January, especially on those nights Clare was already in bed and sound asleep by the time I showed up.”

You join in the laughter, picture him shivering on a cold porch, clad in silk pajamas, teal with a paisley print. Then you picture Clare. Clare, a nice feminine name. Well, his wife would be utterly feminine, wouldn't she?  YOu imagine her as slender, and as tall as he is so they can gaze into each other’s eyes over chilled Chianti. She's probably blond, but not a natural blond, an ash-blond, striking in her appearance, long hair cascading over delicate shoulders like rich mink. She has a soft, dainty face, she looks like a girl, you think. He seems to be about 45, which would make his wife about 43, but you expect that she doesn’t look it. No, she looks like a girl, you’re absolutely sure. And she giggles when he tells people the porch story. She goes on conferences with him, waiting faithfully back in their hotel room, joining him afterwards for cocktails, hanging on his elbow, clinging to him like a child, validating his manhood, playing a coy Marilyn Monroe to his geeky Arthur Miller.

What the hell is going on here! You haven’t even been formally introduced to this man and already your imagination is on a roller coaster ride to the moon! You tell yourself to get a grip. Just because everyone else in the room is gaga over him, doesn’t mean you have to be. But, somehow, you can’t get over the way his lips curl up ever so slightly when he cracks a joke. And the way that deep baritone voice rushes at you with the impact of a full body slam. It doesn’t seem fair. Fate has a strange way of putting you in places you don’t belong—like that marketing course at the community college last year where you made a fool out of yourself insisting that ROI didn’t mean ‘Return on Investment’, it meant ‘Reverse On Intent.’ 

There is nothing left to do but to lean back in your chair, enjoy the lecture, behave yourself, and swear off men for the next century. Or the next five months, whichever comes first. That done, in your head, anyway, you return to the lecture.

“It’s all inner conditioning,” Dr. Winston is saying. “From the moment we’re born and latch on to that nipple of life, we’re conditioned to oral gratification.”

Certainly describes every man you've ever known.

“It’s all right as children to give in to the temptation,” the good Dr.continues. “To eat candy, suck soda from a straw, or kiss our dates until we pass out.”

Laughter bounces around the room. You try to remember kissing someone so long, so passionately that it made you dizzy. You even close your eyes so you can imagine it better, but the only thing you see in your mind’s eye is Paul Winston’s come hither smile. You take a deep breath, feel the absence of cigarette smoke in your lungs, and fall into a fit of coughing. When you stop, you look up and see that he’s watching you. With that damn smile. His gaze falls on your lips, your hands still resting on your throat, and back up to your eyes.

Mercifully, the lecture ends. You haven’t learned very much. Dr. Winston has pamphlets to hand out. He invites questions. There is to be a small reception in the back of the room—ah! Now you understand the tables with coffee, tea and soft drinks. Someone has also added pastries, while you were busy daydreaming about the good Dr. who encourages everyone to partake of the refreshments and discuss the lecture, argue with him, if they so choose, just not disappear without a word. You wonder if he means you specifically.

So, you rise, stand by your chair for a moment, watching as the entire room scrambles to get in line.  How, you think in that split second, did I get here? This is like being lost in the Bermuda Triangle; you aren’t even sure how to get out. But you know you have to get your share of his favor, palm to palm, eye to eye. You take another deep breath and point your toes in the direction of the caffeinated coffee.

You manage to grab a Styrofoam cup before they're all gone, fill it with coffee and two sugars, then just stand there, watching. While everyone else is clamoring for the good Dr.'s attention, you notice a tall woman come hesitantly into the room. She stands on the threshold for quite some time, looking here and there, obviously out of her element. Drab hair full of static flies about her ears. It’s cut to her chin in a blunt style, not at all suited to her long face and thin nose. Her mouth is too large, curved up in a grimace you think is supposed to be a smile, but seems more like a question. Large brown eyes touch everyone in the room frantically, you can tell she’s lost. You can’t help but feel sorry for her. She could probably have used the lecture, if not to quit smoking, then to find some self-esteem, or learn how to make a better entrance. Before you have a chance to approach her and ask if she needs help, she scurries across the floor like a mouse on the trail of cheese.

Instinctively, before she even gets near him, before she makes it half way through the crowd, before that gargoyle grin smoothes into a relieved smile, you realize that she’s here for him. The look of adoration she shines on him when she reaches him, confirms it. This is Clare. A perfect book-end to her husband.

You slam your coffee down hard on the display table—so what if it spills! And you head for the door. Behind you, you feel his stare digging into your shoulders, as hot as August in Florida. On the way to your car, striding with your head held high, (but not even reaching for a cigarette), you tell yourself that giving up on men for five months or five years is a good decision. A great decision. A fantastic decision!


A decision that...may or may not last through Part II. Tune in next Sunday to see what transpires. Five months, five years...or five minutes???


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