The Slumber Party Ch. 17
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When Julia came home that day, everyone could tell that something strange had happened. She hardly said a word when she entered the house, and she at once headed upstairs to her room, paying no heed to her daughters’ casual greeting or to Rod’s attempt to give her a welcome-home hug. After Rod and Melissa exchanged worried looks, Melissa followed her mother up the stairs.
Julia had already closed the door to her room, and Melissa gave her the courtesy of knocking on the door. “Mom,” she said, “is everything okay?”
It was several seconds before Julia opened the door. She was already in the process of changing into a nightgown.
“Mom, what’s happened?” Melissa said, clearly troubled.
The tense, agitated look on Julia’s face told a foreboding tale; and her glistening eyes were also not reassuring.
“Mom,” Melissa said, now marching into the room and making as if to wrap her mother in her arms, “tell me what’s going on.”
Julia wheeled out of her daughter’s attempted hug. With her back turned, she said in a choked voice, “Your—your father came to see me today.”
“Dad?” Melissa almost shrieked. “What’s he doing in town? I thought he had gone down to Portland.” With the floozie.
“Well, he’s back,” Julia said shortly, and with more than a soupçon of hostility.
“But—but why? How?”
Julia gave her daughter a highly truncated, and not entirely sympathetic, précis of Arthur’s lamentable involvement with Cali.
Throughout the brief account, Melissa listened with a hand covering her mouth. She was on the verge of saying, “Oh, poor Daddy!” but stopped herself just in time. That’s no way to make Mom feel good about him. But in fact she did feel a bit sorry for her father. Okay, sure, he had done a bad thing in abandoning Mom; but even he didn’t deserve to suffer the fate that the evil Cali had inflicted on him.
“So—so what’s going to happen now?” Melissa said.
“I’ve agreed to meet him for coffee tomorrow,” Julia said, her mouth curling. It was abundantly evident that the rendezvous was not to her liking.
Once again Melissa had to bite her tongue and not say, “You think you two will get back together?” She knew that Arthur had a lot of humble pie to eat before Julia could even begin to think about forgiving him for his dereliction. But there was always hope . . .
“Mom,” Melissa said, “I just wish you won’t be too hard on him.”
Julia glared at her daughter with fury. “Do you know what that man did to me?”
“Mom, I know,” Melissa said, holding up her hand to prevent yet another torrent of abuse of the wayward husband. She and Rod had heard it all before in the immediate aftermath of Arthur’s bolting from the house. “But you were married to him for a long time. You must still have some feelings for him. At the very least, there’s a lot of history there between you two.”
Now it was Julia’s turn to put a hand over her mouth. Melissa was worried that the tears would begin to flow.
It was just at this point that Rod poked his head into the room. He made his presence known with a tentative “Can I help?”
The moment Julia saw him, she let out a kind of strangled wail and, running up to him, threw her arms around his neck and clung to him like a little girl. She burst into a paroxysm of sobs.
Rod, wrapping his arms around her back and stroking her head gently, gave a look of bewilderment in Melissa’s direction. What on earth is happening? he said silently.
Never mind, Melissa said with equal silence. I’ll tell you later. But it’s your job to comfort her now. That’s been your job ever since you got here.
Julia should have figured that Arthur would have reached the Sunflower Café before she did. Evidently he was not wanting to give Julia any excuse for avoiding their meeting by being late. He was already sitting in a booth toward the back (good move!), and the moment he saw her come in he gave her a shy little wave of the hand.
Sighing heavily, Julia trudged toward the booth.
“Hi,” she said unenthusiastically, not bothering to extend a hand. (Shaking hands with my own husband, even—or especially—under the current circumstances, is surely preposterous.)
“Hi, Julia,” Arthur said weakly.
The brisk waitress, clearly waiting for the party of the second part to arrive, made a beeline for the booth and asked for their order. Julia listlessly ordered coffee, and Arthur did the same. Disappointed with the meager selection, the waitress silently wheeled around and went away.
Julia looked blankly at Arthur for a time.
It was true that he was now looking better than he had when he had invaded her office yesterday. He had showered and shaved, and with sardonic amusement she noted that, in an utterly uncharacteristic maneuver, he had put on some aftershave or maybe even cologne for her delectation. (What does he think?—that I’m going to be seduced by a nice smell?) His trim but casual attire—polo shirt underneath a subdued tan Çankaya Escort sport coat, and apparently a new pair of Dockers—would have made him an attractive male specimen for anyone except herself.
Julia had deliberately dressed in a way that concealed or diminished her own feminine charms, wearing a shapeless kaftan over a pair of baggy slacks, and with virtually no makeup or jewelry. The idea of tarting myself up for this scoundrel is pretty revolting.
But she tried to fulfill Melissa’s request not to be “too hard” on the guy.
“So how are things with you?” she said without much interest.
“Well,” Arthur began sheepishly, “aside from what I told you about before, they’re okay. I managed to get a job with Merrill Lynch downtown. They’d just let someone go, and a friend of mine told me of the opening. That was pretty serendipitous!”
“It sure was,” Julia said. So now you’re here on a permanent basis, are you? The thought was not entirely appealing. “Where are you living?”
“I got a little place in Belltown—quite small, but okay for my purposes for now.”
Julia didn’t like the implications of that “for now” phrase. You might be there for the foreseeable future, my man.
“You—you’ve moved into the city?” Arthur ventured.
“Yes,” Julia said heavily. “It was Melissa’s idea. Both the girls are with me now. And Isabel too.”
It was obvious that Arthur was startled by the news. “The girls are living with you?”
“Sure, why not? Saves money—they don’t have to pay for living in a dorm.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Arthur said dubiously. “But—but Isabel? Why . . .?” Arthur hadn’t exactly gotten along with Isabel, who made her disdain of him—chiefly on account of his gender—abundantly plain on many occasions.
“Well, that’s a little hard to explain. Let’s skip it for now.” You see, there’s this guy named Rod . . . No, Julia didn’t want to go there—not now, anyway.
“How are you doing?” Arthur said in an obvious attempt to appear sympathetic and to draw her out.
“I’m all right,” Julia said. “In fact, I’m quite good.” Rod makes sure of that.
“I’m glad to hear it!” Arthur said with excessive enthusiasm. “You look really great.”
Julia ignored that clumsy attempt at flattery.
Arthur, for his part, didn’t dare ask Julia “Are you seeing anyone?” In his naïveté he couldn’t imagine Julia going out into the dating world again—at least, not this soon. It was obvious she harbored deep resentment against him, and maybe against all men because of what he had done. How he would overcome that was a conundrum he wasn’t certain he could ever solve.
So all he said was, “Do you hate me?”
The question irritated Julia. This is a set-up. If I say “yes,” it makes me seem vindictive and unforgiving. If I say “no,” it makes it sound as if I’m ready to welcome him back into my arms. So what the hell am I supposed to say?
“Arthur, please,” she said wearily. “Let’s not go into that.”
“But what’s why we’re here, aren’t we?” he said with an undercurrent of desperation. “I just—”
“Look, Arthur,” she interrupted, “you did what you did. That can’t be undone. It didn’t work out for you, and I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I never expected you to come back, and I’m not sure I ever wanted you to come back. And if you think I can just forgive you with a snap of your fingers, you’re very much mistaken.”
It was just at this point that the waitress brought the two lonely cups of coffee. She had carried them with a bright smile on her face, but that smile melted away as soon as she detected the tone of Julia’s voice. She deposited the cups in some haste and fled.
“I don’t expect you to forgive me,” Arthur said into his steaming cup. “I did a horrible thing. I said bad things to you. I never meant to say or do any of those things. Some—some awful spell came over me. Maybe you won’t believe me, but I’ll just say you’re the only woman I’ve ever loved and perhaps the only one I ever can love.”
Julia looked as if she was going to be ill. She swallowed hard and repeated, “You did what you did.”
“I know that—but are you saying there’s no hope?”
“Hope for what, exactly?” Do you really fancy you can worm your way back into my life, and my heart?
Arthur clearly hoped for that very thing, but the words in which he sought to express it died on his lips. Instead, after taking a sip of his coffee, he carefully put the cup down on its saucer and looked at Julia lugubriously. Then he did something that even she, who had known him for well over two decades, didn’t expect.
He started to cry.
It was a silent kind of weeping. His face was frozen in a grimace of misery, and the tears fell silently but unceasingly down his cheeks in thin rivulets that then fell off his jaw and onto the lapels of his sport coat.
“Arthur, for God’s sake, what are you doing?” Julia said in alarm.
Without looking Keçiören Escort at her, Arthur said with quiet emphasis, “I was hoping you could give me another chance. I was hoping that I could be allowed to make it up to you somehow—that you’d let me show you how much I loved and cherished and cared for you, as my wife and as the mother of my children. All I want is one chance. And if I fail in that, well, at least I will have tried—and then maybe you can let me be your friend, because I promise you I’ll be the best friend you ever had. That will be enough for me.”
The tears kept on flowing.
And, to Julia’s surprise, the tears trickled out of her eyes also. Brushing them away impatiently, she looked with increasing agitation at her husband and stood up.
“Arthur, we can’t do this here!” she whispered. Already several people were noticing their display of emotion, even though neither of them had come close to raising their voices.
Arthur sat stoically in the booth, submerged in his wretchedness.
“Arthur, dear, we have to get out of here,” Julia said, opening her purse and tossing a ten-dollar bill—far more than what the two coffees cost—carelessly on the table. That formulaic little endearment stunned her husband, who gazed up at her baffled and confused.
She grabbed him by the arm as if hoping to drag him out of the place by main force. That of course was futile, but he did stumble out of the booth and, still crying, follow her out of the café. Now virtually everyone was looking at them.
When she led him, for no comprehensible reason, to her car, he threw his arms around her and gave her a bear-hug that came close to squeezing the breath out of her. And now his sobs became audible as he bent down and all but wailed, pressing his face against her shoulder.
“Arthur, please stop!” she said sharply, trying to pry herself out of her grasp. “You have to get a grip on yourself.”
But Arthur didn’t seem in any mood to do that. While the volume of his sobbing did reduce a bit, he didn’t cease to clutch his wife tightly by the waist, his tears now wetting her hair and cheeks. Julia instinctively stroked his head as if he were a baby, and even that minimal expression of sympathy made Arthur hold her even more desperately.
“Arthur—” she began.
“I want to see my daughters,” he said abruptly. “Please, may I see my daughters? Are they home?”
“Yes, they’re home,” she admitted grudgingly. “I—I’ll take you to them if you like.” She could have bitten her tongue—but what was she to do with this tearful mess of a man? In all the years of their marriage he had never shed a tear, so far as she could remember. Men aren’t supposed to cry anyway, are they?
“You will?” he said, as if someone had just extended a lifeline to him.
“I’m sure they’ll be happy to see you,” Julia said. At least Melissa will. “Just follow me in your car, okay?”
Arthur left her in the lurch, springing away from her in his eagerness to get into his own car. Julia wryly congratulated him on his cleverness in getting her to reveal where she lived.
It was a short drive to the house, and as Julia opened the door she was not surprised to find all the other occupants on tenterhooks in the living room. Some of them seemed surprised that she had returned home so soon, and they apparently thought something had gone awry; but then they saw a tentative Arthur shuffle in.
“Daddy!” Melissa cried as soon as she spotted her father. She rushed over to give him a big hug, almost knocking him off his feet. After he got over his shock, he held her closely, burying his face in her neck almost as he had done to Julia in the café parking lot.
“I’ve missed you so much,” Melissa said, choking up.
“So have I, sweetie,” Arthur said in a voice full of emotion.
They parted reluctantly, and Arthur looked over at his other daughter.
“Audrey, can you give a little hug to your father?” he said shyly.
Audrey hesitated only a moment, then said, “Of course, Dad.” But her hug was quite a bit more perfunctory than Melissa’s had been.
It was only after Audrey pried herself out of her father’s arms that Arthur noticed the presence of Isabel. In her transformed state—with stylish hair and clothes to match—it was not surprising that he nearly failed to recognize her.
“Isabel?” he said in wonder. “Is that you?”
“Indeed it is, Arthur,” she said with a certain smugness.
“My God, Isabel, you’re beautiful,” he whispered.
She took the compliment as it was intended. There may have been an unpleasant implication behind it (you certainly looked pretty homely before), but she chose to ignore that.
He held his arms out toward her, and she embraced him willingly. Unaware of her newfound fondness for intimacy, he was taken aback when she hugged him tightly, pressing her bosom and even her groin right into his body and even giving the side of Etimesgut Escort his neck a firm kiss.
Arthur hadn’t gotten over his amazement at Isabel’s metamorphosis when he noticed another person in the room.
He looked quizzically at Julia. “And who’s this, dear?”
“This is Rod,” she said quickly. “He’s, um, Melissa’s boyfriend.”
A look of surprise and delight came over Arthur’s face, and he all but beamed. “Melissa’s boyfriend? That’s great!” He well knew that Melissa hadn’t exactly set the boys on fire during her high school and early college years, so he was delighted that she had advanced in that regard—and especially that she had secured the attentions of so prepossessing a young man. (A bit on the thin side, but sturdy—and probably smart as a whip, like herself.)
Arthur extended a hand. “Great to see you, my boy,” he said avuncularly. “Lucky you happened to be here when I showed up.”
“Um, Daddy,” Melissa said, “he lives here.”
Arthur came close to freezing, holding out his hand mechanically and scarcely feeling Rod seize it. “He lives here?” he said, although he seemed to be speaking more to Julia than to his daughter.
“Well, yes,” Julia said awkwardly. “We thought it would be more convenient. It’s just until they graduate.” That was of course a flat-out lie, but what else could she say? There’s no way I can explain Rod’s place in the household right now: Arthur may need a good many drinks before I can do that.
Arthur took a new look at Rod, scrutinizing him closely. “Well,” he said, trying to make the best of things, “you’re one lucky young man, I’d say. You’ve got a bevy of women to take care of you!”
“Uh, yeah,” Rod barely managed to croak out. No one else said anything.
Melissa came to the rescue as best she could.
“Oh, Daddy, it’s so good to see you! You never even wrote to me or phoned—it’s as if you’d dropped off the face of the earth.”
“Yes, well, um,” he stammered.
“But that’s over now, isn’t it?”
“I guess it is.” Arthur wasn’t sure exactly what Melissa was referring to—either his affair with Cali or the silence he had maintained from the rest of his family. Perhaps both.
“Mom,” Melissa said, looking at Julia and seeming fired by a sudden inspiration, “can Daddy stay for dinner? I mean, it’s getting toward five, and we have to start getting dinner ready anyway.” Turning back to her father, she went on: “We’re making a big beef stew with dumplings. That was one of your favorites, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” Arthur said quietly. He seemed to be tearing up again.
“Can he, Mom?” Melissa petitioned.
Julia had a pained expression on her face. Once again I’ve been put on the spot. What the hell can I do but say yes? I’ll come across as a royal bitch—a vengeful “scorned woman”—if I don’t.
“Sure,” she said unenthusiastically. “If he wants.”
“Daddy, do you want?” Melissa prodded.
“If no one minds,” Arthur said politely.
Melissa gave a quick scan of the room and quickly concluded. “I’m sure everyone wants to have you here.”
And so it was. Arthur’s daughters quickly retreated to the kitchen to begin dinner preparations, and Julia joined them—if only to get out of talking further with Arthur. That left Arthur and Rod to cool their heels in the living room, feeling like useless males.
Rod did manage to relate some innocuous details about himself—how he was a junior studying comp lit (which required some explanation, as Arthur had never heard of the term before), and so on and so forth. Naturally, Rod avoided even the remotest mention of the unusual place he occupied in the household: he doubted that Arthur would welcome the knowledge that Rod had in essence become a kind of youthful pasha with four women (including Arthur’s wife) as his harem.
Arthur similarly trod lightly on delicate subjects, although he suspected that Julia had told him of his unfortunate affair with Cali—and had no doubt put the worst possible spin on it. But, in fact, there was no way to put a good spin on it, and Arthur just hoped that one day Julia could overlook (even if she never forgave) his appalling act. He liked Rod, finding in his shyness an echo of his own diffidence when he was Rod’s age.
Their male bonding was rudely interrupted by Audrey’s blunt order, “Come on, guys. Get over here and chow down.”
The meal was splendid: aside from the stew and dumplings, there was a hearty green salad and freshly baked bread, and a store-bought chocolate cake that happened to be available. Julia looked dubiously at the dessert, hoping it didn’t come across as some token of celebration of Arthur’s return to her life.
Arthur prudently chose to leave soon after dinner, but not before he took Julia aside and extracted from her, not entirely willingly, a promise to meet again soon.
In fact, over the next few weeks they met often, as their work schedules and other obligations permitted. One Saturday they actually went on a picnic, and Julia admitted that she had a very nice time. In a way it was like being courted again—except that she didn’t have to go through the tedium of explaining her past life to her new beau. With the passing of time she became comfortable with Arthur, and his obvious pleasure at merely being in her company gratified and flattered her.
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