Cairns had grown, almost doubled in size, since Ben last lived in the area, but he still knew his way around in terms of both the geography and the culture. He still had friends in the area, too, so he didn’t feel lost either metaphorically or physically. He felt ill at ease but struggled to identify why. Comfortable with his own company, Ben didn’t need constant companionship—so he didn’t feel lonely, not exactly.
Sure, he continued to feel a residual sadness about the end of his twenty-three year marriage, but he’d grown used to that empty space. That feeling had accompanied him for three years and no longer crippled him as it did for the first year or two. Ben also felt physically frustrated, because he’d been celibate for several months. That rankled but did not dominate his thoughts or feelings, wasn’t the cause of his discomfort.
He entered the supermarket in the Cairns Central shopping mall and began filling his shopping cart as he worked his way up and down the aisles. While he shopped, he pondered: What, exactly, is this discomfort I’m feeling? At the same time, he pondered whether the benefits of the organic products he preferred justified the cost. When Ben’s ex-wife complained about the cost of organic food, to wit, every time they shopped together, Ben had always replied, “But we’re worth it.”
Now, with no family to nurture and protect and no strong desire to prolong his life, he wondered if the confirmed health benefits made the higher prices worthwhile for him as a bereft and semi-impoverished single man attempting a mid-life career change. The juxtaposition of the two questions in Ben’s mind brought the answer to one of them: he felt single, when his greatest joy came from sharing. That’s it! he thought. That’s what’s making me so uncomfortable—not getting to share.
Glad to have an answer to one of his questions, if still no solution to the underlying problem, he ignored the second question for the time being and continued seeking organic products out of habit. At the end of the aisle, he turned to continue along the next one and passed a woman who captured his attention.
Ben saw and appreciated beautiful women every time he ventured into the city, but something about this young woman held his attention more than others. She was tall, less than an inch shorter than his own five-eleven frame, but many women shared that attribute. She was pretty, but others displayed as much classical beauty. She moved gracefully, but so did many others. Why, then, did his eyes insist on following her?
The woman, probably in her late twenties, must have wondered the same thing. After they passed each other a second time in another aisle, she turned to Ben and, not with apparent anger but with the demeanor of a stern schoolteacher, said, “It isn’t nice to stare.”
With no time to think of a clever riposte, Ben gave his questioner an honest, straightforward, and unconsidered answer: “Oh, dear! Was I staring? I wasn’t really staring, was I?”
“Looked like it to me,” the woman said, as Ben continued, “If I was, I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to.”
“If you weren’t staring, what were you doing?”
Defenceless and feeling compelled to reveal his thoughts and feelings, Ben said, “Drinking in your beauty, I guess.” After a hesitation too short to be called a pause, Ben continued, “I think maybe I was trying to get a sense of who you are by intense visual inspection. I recognize how silly that sounds, because it’s impossible, but I suppose my reaction was emotional, not rational.”
“Well, you’re right about that. It’s impossible. It takes more than even the most acute visual examination to discover what sort of person someone is.”
“Yes, I wasn’t being rational.” Ben’s pause lasted a little longer than the previous one, before he continued, “But I really do want to get to know who you are, what sort of person you are.”
“Wh—” the woman began, then said, “You mean you want to get me into bed.”
“Well, that, too,” Ben said. “Of course I would like to share the pleasures we could give each other with physical intimacy, but that isn’t what I was thinking. Not really, or at least not mostly. Yes, I—”
“That sounds like a pick-up line, if ever there was one.”
“No!” Ben exclaimed quietly, but with such intensity his new acquaintance stopped her banter and listened. “I was not, I am not, trying to pick you up—or am I.” Another short pause, then, “It’s true that I would like to enjoy your company and get to know you, b—”
Ben’s inquisitor wavered, then said, “That’s what men always say.”
“OK, fair enough. But in this case it’s true. I enjoy sex, I like sex, but that is not what this is about, not what I was thinking about at all—or at least not much. I just want to know who you are as a person.” The woman began to speak, but Ben continued, “I guess I just found you so exceptional that getting to know you seemed important—still does.” Before his new acquaintance could speak, Ben said, “I would like you to care about me, because I think I could grow to care about you.” He again paused briefly and then said, “Oh, hell! I’m not expressing my thoughts very well, am I.”
The dark haired woman remained silent for a moment, then said, “I don’t know. Maybe you are.” Ben began to speak, but she continued, “You’re pretty articulate, and that’s nice.”
“Thank you. You seem articulate, too.”
They stood looking at each other in silence for a moment, before Ben said, “Can we sit somewhere and talk awhile, maybe see if we like each other, see if we get along?”
For the first time, the woman smiled at Ben, as she said, “We’d better finish our shopping first. Then we can sit on those sofas out by the escalators.”
“May I shop alongside you?”
“You may not want the same things.”
“True, but I can always suggest detours, can’t I.”
“Yes,” she said with a little laugh, “you can.”
So, they shopped together. Twenty-five minutes later, they found unoccupied spots on a surprisingly comfortable sofa between the mall’s supermarket and the exit. Ben had noticed his companion bought no meat and was about to comment on that, when she said, “You didn’t buy any meat. Is that because I didn’t?”
“No. I’ve been a vegetarian for more than fifteen years.”
“Wow! Longer than I have.”
“Hardly surprising, given my age,” Ben said, and immediately regretted calling attention to the difference in their ages.
The dark-haired woman, who told Ben her name was Madison—and added, “I curse my mother every time I tell anyone”—didn’t seem to notice. They sat and talked together for most of an hour, beginning with a conversation about diet but wandering onto dozens of other topics. Ben had stopped to do his shopping on the way to a public gathering of an environmental group with which he associated—not exactly a protest, but a demonstration of numbers intended to influence the local politicians. Aware that no more than twenty minutes remained before the starting time of the gathering, he began to feel a conflict between his desire to effect a stronger relationship with his new acquaintance and his desire to act on behalf of the local environment.
He weighed the importance of attending the rally against his desire to develop at least a genuine friendship with Madison and was about about to say something, when she spoke first. “I’d planned to attend a vigil this evening,” she said, “and I might feel guilty if I didn’t.”
“Fair enough,” Ben replied. “Me, too. How far do you have to go? I planned to leave my car and walk from here. Maybe I could walk with you, if we’re going in the same direction.”
They agreed to stash their purchases in their respective vehicles and did so, then headed toward downtown. They’d walked about a block, at exactly the same pace without any conscious effort or adjustment, when Ben asked, “Where are you headed?”
“To the library.”
“Are you going to the bat vigil?”
“Oh! Do you know about that? Yes.”
Ben smiled and nodded vigorously. Madison looked shocked, then pleased, as a broad smile spread across her face. She shook her head and said, “Yeah, I s’pose I should’ve guessed.”
“Is that OK—that I’m going to the same place, I mean?”
“Yes, of course. It just gives us more time to get to know each other. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?”
“Still do, more than ever.”
Madison smiled again and said, “Good.” They walked another five or six steps, and she said, “You’re full of surprises.”
“You, too. The nice thing is they keep turning out to be the same surprises.”
Ben’s new friend chuckled at that, and they talked for most of the rest of the short walk to the library grounds about their involvements in environmental activities and campaigns. Once there, the two separated and greeted friends and acquaintances. Ben frequently scanned the crowd to find Madison. He felt pleased to see that most of the times his eyes found her, she was looking at him, too. Once the formal speeches and other organized activities began, both Ben and Madison drifted among the crowd, often ending up near each other and standing side by side for the two longest speeches.
When the organizers announced a musical interlude and two musicians began playing, Ben wished he had brought one or more of his instruments. He felt confident he could have added some beautiful harmonies to what the others played. He found Madison beside him again but said nothing about wishing he could accompany the other musicians. Two more, shorter, speeches brought the official program to an end, and people began drifting away. Ben looked around for Madison and again found her looking around for him. They made their way to each other, more easily with the diminished crowd, and Ben said, “Shall we walk back over to the the mall?”
Madison said nothing but projected her elbow in his direction. He slipped his arm through the gap, and the pair began strolling back toward the shopping mall. They resumed talking about environmental issues, activities, and organizations with forays onto other topics. About halfway back to the shopping mall, Madison giggled. When Ben looked his question at her, she grinned and said, “We look more like tourists than the tourists do.” Ben laughed out loud and agreed, and they began talking about the way tourism dominated the city’s culture.
“Downtown’s culture,” Madison corrected.
“We-el-ll, yeah, especially downtown’s culture, but not just downtown. Almost the whole city north of downtown.”
The topic of jobs arose, as they approached the mall, and Madison said she worked for a firm that managed commercial real estate. She then inquired, and Ben explained that he’d returned from an overseas sojourn in an effort to effect a transition from earning his living with his music to earning a living with his writing. Madison had parked her car nearer the ramp the two environmentalists ascended, so they reached her car as she uttered an interrogatory exclamation. “You’re trying to get out of playing music for a living!? Most people would like to get into playing music for a living.”
“Yeah, it’s ironic, I suppose. I mean, I still enjoy making music. I just don’t enjoy travelling. I’m kind of a homebody. It’d be great if somebody’d pay me to sit at home and play, but the only way to make a living is to be on the road all the time.”
“Yeah, I get that. I’d be a homebody, if home didn’t mean a flat in town.”
“I can totally relate to that,” Ben said. “I’m a country boy.”
“Isn’t there an old song about that?”
Ben burst into song and sang the first verse and chorus of “Thank God I’m A Country Boy”, although he sang his own lyrics on the last line, rendering it “I’m glad I’m a country boy.” He ended by saying, “John Sommers, 1974”.
“Wow!” his companion said. “You are a musician, or a singer at least—and a good one. You have a nice voice. But wasn’t it John Denver?”
“Thank you. Yes, John Denver had the hit recording, but his fiddler—or fiddler and guitar player—John Sommers wrote it.”
“Did you change the words?”
Madison looked at Ben without saying anything, and he said, “I avoid singing anything with any connection to religion.”
She studied him for a moment and then said, “Like I said, you’re full of surprises.”
“As I said.”
Madison sputtered and then laughed out loud and then, sounding rather sheepish, said. “Yes, OK, you’re right. So, are you an English teacher, too?”
Sounding as sheepish as his companion, Ben said, “Well, I did teach English the past two years, but I’m really a physics teacher.”
“A physics teacher! I thought you were a musician.”
“Yes, but I keep trying to find ways to get out of the music biz.”
“So you have a degree. In physics.”
Sounding sheepish all over again, Ben admitted, “I was a physics major for more than three years, but I got my degree in mathematics. I didn’t like the … ummm … attitude?… environment?—say ‘the vibe’—in the physics department and switched departments in my last semester.”
“Oh, for crying out loud! Are you making all this up to impress me?”
“No, but I’d like to impress you.”
“OK, I’m impressed. As I said,” Madison put strong emphasis on the “As”, accompanied by a warm smile, “you are full of surprises.”
“I hope you’re impressed enough to want to see me again, ’cause I sure do want to see you again.” And again and again and again, Ben thought but didn’t say.
“I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed anyone’s company so much. Yes, I’d like to see you again.”
Madison unlocked her Kia and rummaged in the glove compartment—does anyone use them for gloves anymore?—until she found a pen and a piece of paper. Tearing the paper in half, she wrote her contact details on one piece then handed the pen to Ben to do likewise. Ben felt so excited about the possibility of developing a real relationship with this beautiful and obviously intelligent woman he could hardly keep his hand steady enough to write. Suppressing his excitement, he recorded the necessary information and handed the paper and pen to his new friend. They stood and looked at each other in silence for a moment and then simultaneously extended their arms and shared a hug, before Madison climbed into her car and drove away.
Ben either floated or walked back to his car, he wasn’t sure which. He took a big swallow of the drinkable yoghurt he’d bought while shopping with Madison, then started the motor and initiated his two-hour drive home. Although he’d intended to go straight to bed, Ben booted up his computer, while he flossed and brushed his teeth, and sent a short email to Madison: “Thank you for a delightful evening. I would like to see you again and again . . .” with his address, ’phone number, and other contact details, before he finally climbed between the sheets and drifted away to thoughts and then dreams of his new friend.
He woke a little later than usual feeling rested and refreshed and put a bowl of oatmeal to cook in the microwave, while he booted his computer. Ben felt disappointed to find no answering message from Madison but forced himself to focus on getting things done. Similar disappointments that evening and the next day left Ben wondering if his new acquaintance had reconsidered the idea of a relationship with him.
To his delight, he found a message from Madison waiting for him Monday morning: “Sorry. Silly of me to give you my work email. Thank you for your nice message. When I got home Friday night, I thought of writing to you but thought I might seem too eager. I recognize now that was silly. I am eager to see you. Forgot I didn’t give you my personal email. Felt disappointed not to have a message from you over the weekend. Thank you again. M.” Ben wasted no time sending off a short reply, then ate breakfast and settled down to send queries to literary agents and submissions to literary magazines.
A little over an hour later, he checked his email and found a reply from Madison thanking him for his second message but saying little else. I suppose that’s to be expected, since she’s at work, Ben thought. He sent a message to Madison asking when he could see her, then returned to working on queries and submissions. In the course of the day and several messages in each direction, they agreed to meet at the Cheeky Yam for an informal dinner right after Madison’s work the following evening.
The next day, Ben experienced only a little difficulty concentrating after he resumed working on sending out more queries and submissions. He managed six of each and felt pleased to receive a message from a literary journal that wanted to publish one of his stories he’d submitted four months earlier. That left him in a positive mood for his rendezvous with his new friend, which would have lifted his spirits anyway.
At the little restaurant, the two resumed their conversation as if it had suffered no interruption. They talked about topics ranging from politics and the environment to science to music to favorite books and authors and a dozen other subjects and kept amazing each other with the convergence of their views. An entire evening of that left both eager for more, so they arranged another dinner date for the next evening. In the course of that latter date, Madison asked, “Are you driving all the way down here just to have dinner with me?”
“Sort of,” Ben replied. “Not just to have dinner with you, but to spend time with you, to savor your company and bask in your beauty and enjoy your intelligent conversation.”
Madison laughed something between a giggle and a chuckle and said, “I do enjoy our conversation, but what’s so beautiful about me?”
“Are you fishing for compliments?” Ben said, then immediately wished he hadn’t, as he worried he might have offended his companion. Before she could reply, he continued, “I’m just teasing. But I’ll give you a straight answer. Th—”
“You always do,” Madison interrupted. “That’s one of the things that’s so neat about you.”
“Thank you. Now, your overall presence was the first thing that caught my attention, not your pretty face or your beautiful legs, b—”
“You said you liked my straight answers. So, what I noticed first was just a sense of your being a special person, a special woman. I didn’t know why then, and I still don’t—but that was what I experienced.”
His companion looked as if she might be about to say something, but she remained silent so Ben continued, “The next thing was your eyes. I dream of your eyes as I drift off to sleep, and I would have dreamed of them even if we hadn’t got to know each other. Your eyes really are especially beautiful.”
Madison smiled and said, “Thank you. It’s funny, I didn’t notice your eyes right away, as you seem to’ve done, but since we’ve spent some time together I’ve noticed that your eyes are particularly beautiful, too.”
“Thank you,” Ben said, as he reached out and held his friend’s hand.
She squeezed his hand and smiled again and said, “Back to my original question, you drive all the way down here just for our dates?”
“Hmmm… I guess they are dates, aren’t they. I haven’t been out on a date in so long, I didn’t even think of that.” Madison squeezed his hand again and intensified her smile, and Ben continued, “I do sometimes come to the city for other reasons, of course, but this week it’s been just to get to be with you.”
“That’s a lot of driving.”
“Yeah, not very environmentally friendly.”
“I was thinking more of the wear and tear on you—and the expense, for that matter.”
“Yeah, well, you’re worth it,” Ben said, as he drew Madison’s hand to his lips and kissed it.
That led to a discussion both affectionate and passionate about relationships in general and their relationship in particular that resulted in Madison’s saying, “Yes, I want you, but I don’t want to have to get up and hurry away from you.” Ben squeezed her hand again and nodded, and she continued, “When I lie down beside you, I want us to be able to enjoy that for a good, long while.”
“I could drive back down on Friday.”
Madison grimaced as she said, “I promised to go out with a couple of girlfriends, ’cause one of ’em is moving away this weekend. Can we make a date for next Friday? I could even drive up to your place.”
“That sounds good. Can I see you during the week, too, though?”
“Yes, please,” Madison said with a sigh. “Gawd! You are so sweet, so romantic. Yes, I would miss you if I didn’t see you during the week.”
“Well, as I said when we met, I want to share sexual union with you, but it isn’t just about sex.”
“Yeah, most men would say that, and most of them would be lying. With you, I know it’s true. We share so much.”
They shared more conversation until they noticed the restaurant staff packing things away for the night and preparing to close. The two new friends sat in Ben’s little Hyundai for another hour, sharing conversation and a few almost-chaste kisses, which resulted in Madison’s going to work short on sleep the next day and Ben’s arriving home in the middle of the night. Similar sharing the next Monday and Wednesday delighted both of them, and their weekend in Ben’s little rural cottage delighted them even more.
In one of their many inter-coital conversations, this one about partners and relationships, Madison said, “I never thought I would get involved with an older man, but you just tick all my boxes.”
“I am so glad of that,” Ben replied, as he initiated another round of physical sharing.
In another conversation, about work and occupations, Madison told her new lover she had considered becoming a science teacher and had even begun earning the requisite qualifications. When he asked why she wasn’t teaching, she said, “I discovered I like kids, but I don’t like schools.”
“Yeah, I totally get that. Me, too.”
“This time, Ben dear, I’m not surprised.”
That all occurred almost three years ago, and Ben no longer lives in the rural hinterlands. He has leased out his rural property, and used most of his saving to make a down payment with Madison on a house and two acres a little beyond the edge of Gordonvale. That means a longer commute for Madison but an almost rural environment, which she enjoys. Some mornings, they drive into Cairns together; most mornings, she drives into Cairns, then back to Gordonvale in the late afternoon. She plans to continue that for another two months and then resign, because she recently found out she and Ben have started a family.
Both Ben and Madison feel happy about that, and plan to sell their Gordonvale place and move back to Ben’s rural retreat once the baby is born. Although they have no guarantees of living happily ever after, they have made a good start on it.
Educated as a scientist, graduated as a mathematician, Harlan Yarbrough has earned his living as a full-time professional entertainer most of his life, including a stint as a regular on the prestigious Grand Ole Opry. Harlan’s repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as a librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city (land use) planner, among other occupations. Harlan lives, writes, and continues to improve his dzonkha vocabulary and pronunciation in Bhutan but visits the US, Europe, or Australia to perform and thereby to recharge his bank account. He has settled in Bhutan but in previous decades has lived, performed, and taught in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark. Harlan has written five novels, three novellas (of which two have been published), three novelettes (two published, one forthcoming), and ninety-some short stories, of which fifty-four have been published by sixty-one literary journals in ten countries.