After completing the call to her driver, she pulled a mirror from her purse with a set of tissues. She started dabbing gently at her eyes. She also ignored me. I started pacing nervously.
Within minutes the limo pulled up to the nearby curbing --about ten yards behind us-- and the uniformed driver jumped out to open the passenger door. I helped Catherine rise from the bench and slowly walked her toward the car. On the way there she turned to me and said:
"Please do me the honor of letting me drive you back to your shop office and giving you your bonus."
"And your ... gift," she added. While I was pretty sure she didn’t intend it, that final statement made me feel horrible. I merely nodded a second time.
I helped her with much care and caution to get into the limo without invoking any pain. I then climbed in beside her, seated at her left, and watched her breathe shallow breaths of discomfort. As we drove, she stroked her ribs with her eyes closed.
"Are you in much pain?" I asked.
"Only a little," she whispered, her eyes still closed. "But would you let me hold your hand again while I deal with that pain?"
I slowly reached out and touched the tops of her knuckles. With her eyes still closed she turned her hand up into mine and we again laced our fingers. After a moment of this she surprised me by pulling my hand toward her with a minor amount of force. So I responded by sliding over on the seat and sidling up right beside her. As before, she barely leaned her head against my shoulder --once again probably because she wanted to avoid bending sideways. So I again nestled myself as closely as possible against her without making her tilt too much. With no hesitation I let my arm go around her back and I leaned my cheek down against her temple. She leaned against me just like she did back on the park bench. Her perfume proved all the stronger there in the enclosed car and grew downright intoxicating. I shut my eyes and breathed deeply of it.
"What is that amazing perfume you’re wearing?" I whispered.
"It’s called ‘Joy,’" she whispered back. "Do you like it?"
"Yes," I said.
"But," she paused before finally saying it: "we have to say good-bye soon." She said it with a quiet almost emotionless tone. I opened my eyes and looked down at her face to get a better read of her emotions. She had her eyes tightly shut.
"If we say good-bye," she whispered, eyes still shut, "we could either make it a short good-bye, or a long one. That’s up to you."
Before I could even begin trying to figure out what she meant by that, the car turned right and the force caused her to shift more heavily into my arms. I sensed her body grow tense during the momentary torque caused by the turn, and I also heard her wince in pain with a slight hiss through her teeth. I did my best to buffer the full brunt of the turn upon her body.
The car then stopped and the limo driver opened his door and got out.
"We’re here," she whispered to me right as the limo driver opened my door for me. She remained in my arms, eyes tightly shut, a tear sliding from one of them.
I hesitated while holding her, and grew self-conscious over the limo driver’s presence. So I slowly released her and exited. As I stood in the open limo door I briefly surveyed my shop yard, looking around self-consciously at it, feeling very low class and blue collar amid this ugly albeit orderly collection of pipes and grimy industrial equipment. A carpenter’s work shop with the aroma of sawdust had this place beat by a mile.
I stooped over to help her step out. I watched her wipe her now-open eyes with the edge of her finger. Then she reached out her hand to mine so that I could help her out. I again used as much gingerly care as possible in assisting her passage through the car door.
As I slowly helped her to achieve a full stand right in front of me, I kept my arms loosely around her. She didn’t resist that and even reciprocated. She leaned against me, hugging me tightly, her face against my shoulder. I resisted the urge to tighten my own encircling arms for fear of hurting her.
We remained in each other’s arms for a long while, ignoring the limo driver who merely stood there in total silence, waiting. The engine sat idling.
"As I explained earlier: I have a gift in the trunk for you," she whispered to my shoulder. "I insist that you take it. It’s yours to do with as you see fit --even sell it if you like. The only thing I ask is that you never try to give it back to me. That would deeply hurt me if you did."
"Okay," I nodded. But the same fears again crept back --this time with greater certainty, topped off with mountains of guilt-- that her gift most assuredly had to be expensive.
"Thank you," she said, then tipped her head away from my shoulder and looked me in the eye. Her tears were gone, and her voice regained only some of its former strength. "As for that good-bye," she explained, "we can either say good-bye very quickly right here in the parking lot, and then I instantly drive away and never see you again. Or," her voice found just a slight measure more of its former strength, and a meager smile came to her face as she looked me dead I the eye, "we can go into your office and say good-bye very slowly, and I can STILL drive away later today and STILL never see you again. But at least then I would have a good-bye worth remembering, and hopefully you would too."
My eyes widened at her proposition. I glanced sideways at the limo driver --his face remained as blank and empty as a freshly painted wall. And then I noticed the office window just over his shoulder where Stephanie had her grinning face pressed against the glass. She saw me and waved like the giddy school girl she was. She followed that wave with an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
I turned back to Catherine and said: "Your ribs are still mending. Your injury is less than a week old. I might unintentionally hurt you."
"You’ll have to be very careful then," she smiled.
"Wouldn’t my apartment be better than the office?"
"I’m not ashamed of who you are. And this place is very much a part of who you are. There’s no place on Earth better than here."
I took a breath at her words, then spontaneously kissed her.
-------------------End of Chapter 31--------------------