I first met Arlene Henson in law school. She’d been a teacher for twenty years and was in her early forties—which made her nearly twenty years older than me, and most of the rest of our class. But Arlene was still youthful and fun, and I never thought of her age as a significant factor in our friendship.
Her face had the gentle and patient look which you’d want to see on your favorite teacher, but it was also quick to flash into an ironic smile and even a dismissive, almost-cynical laugh. Arlene was recently divorced from a Geography professor and she was attending law school on her share of the sale of their house in Milwaukee.
She’d been a collegiate swimmer, and still did triathlons; she often came to class in tight fitting athletic outfits which hugged her trim figure and still drew plenty of attention from young men half her age. She teased them like they were her 7th grade class, but once or twice did seem to form some attachments or at least alliances with her fellow law students.
I was an alliance, not an attachment.
Arlene and I were both top students, and usually had the same reactions to people. We both thought law school was more like high school than college, with cliques and people flirting in front of their lockers. Arlene and I were also allies on most editorial matters on the Law Review. We would share notes and outlines knowing that we could trust the other’s work product.
At that point, I was engaged to my undergraduate girlfriend Christine, whom Arlene had met at the apartment we shared near the Vilas Park Zoo in Madison. I guess you’d say we’d been friends in law school, although it wasn’t like we went out for beers regularly or anything. She was just a memorable classmate that I respected and who made me laugh.
Nonetheless, I was delighted to see her familiar and expressive face at the new hire orientation for new Smythe and Helgerson attorneys.
“Jason!” We hugged, a little awkwardly. “What department are you going to be working in?”
“Litigation–” She had really beautiful blue-green eyes. Her auburn hair was cut shorter and more stylishly than in law school.
“Awesome, me too! So how’s married life?”
“Ouch. Christine dumped me during last semester finals, just before moving to New York with a business school classmate.”
“Oops, sorry, I hadn’t heard,” she said. She put her hand on my shoulder. “I’ve been there myself, it’s no fun.”
Over that fall and winter, Arlene and I worked hundreds of hours together and we became very close friends. We were both politically liberal and sometimes aghast at the corporate clients we spent almost half of our time defending. We read the same novels as we traveled, liked the same foods in airports and shared texts and e-mails from friends and family.
Arlene had an older sister, whom she called Dr. Sarah, a brain surgeon in San Francisco who was happily married to a radiologist; the sister seemed to live a dream life with their two adorable sons. Arlene had always felt inadequate compared to Sarah, and that was probably the main reason why she’d taken the leap into law school when her own marriage had gone south.
“So do you like law?” I asked her one night. We were standing in the hallway of a hotel in Baltimore, just about to turn in after a long day of deposing engineers.
“I’m good at it, and it suits my obsessive nature.”
“That’s not what I asked. I really like it, but I sometimes feel guilty representing some of these multinational behemoths.”
“I wouldn’t say that I like it. No, I don’t really enjoy it—honestly, teaching was much more rewarding. There’s not that emotional immediacy in any of this. Except hanging out with you.”
“We do have our fun, don’t we, Arles?” I called her Arles because she had a print of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles on the wall of her office. It had gone everywhere with her since she was an undergrad, she’d told me. She was planning to buy a much better framed print of it in the next months—the only material thing I’d ever heard her covet.
“Yes, Jay,” she replied, taking my chin in her hand. She looked at me with some surprising new intensity. “Love our nicknames, too.”
Her look lingered—did she want me to invite her into my room? “Well, have a good night my friend, tomorrow we’ll do the town to celebrate your birthday.”
“Ugh, forty-six! Closer to fifty than forty!”
“And still smoking hot,” I said, maybe with some unexpected urgency of my own.
“You’re very kind. Good night, my dear friend.”
The next day was equally grueling; it involved depositions of engineers on very technical issues relating to a grain elevator that had exploded from our client’s failure to control dust. We were both dead tired when we went out to ‘celebrate’ that night.
Arles was as gloomy as I’d ever seen her. “Almost freaking fifty, and spending my days making the world safe for grain elevator explosions!”
“Forty-six isn’t fifty, and fifty isn’t eighty anyway.”
“Easy for you to say. How old are you?”
“Twenty-eight,” I replied sheepishly. “Two more shots of that Nicaraguan rum!” I called out to distract Arles from my answer. But she just shrugged anyway.
We were both pretty drunk by the time we made it up to the same hotel hallway, and this time Arlene insisted that I have a nightcap in her room. “In the hotel room with Arles,” I quipped, recalling her Van Gogh print. “But only if you promise not to cut off any ears.”
“You’re funny,” she said, rubbing her hand over my forehead and through my hair. “But it’s not your ears I’m after buddy boy.” She opened the door. “Well, maybe, they do fit your face really well.”
We had a glass of white wine and danced to some music from her laptop, and even hugged for a minute or two. Soon we were slow dancing and holding each other close.
“So are we gonna get together tonight?” Her teal eyes almost pleaded with me. “Kind of get the idea that you’d like to.”
“We are together,” I replied, noncommittally. What held me back? I was of course attracted to Arles and cared about her a lot as a friend but…I didn’t want to make things awkward between us when we spent so much time together. “And it’s very nice.”
Arles planted a lingering, garlic-flavored kiss on my lips.
“That’s nice too,” I said at length. “But I don’t think we should.” I would have felt like I was taking advantage of her being drunk and so depressed about her birthday.
She pulled away from me immediately. “You’re just too conventional to be with someone my age—you’d be embarrassed to tell your next little twenty-something that you got so drunk that you boned the older woman you worked with.”
“It’s not like that, Arles. I am attracted to you, I’ve told you that, and we’re close friends. But let’s stick with that. It has nothing to do with age.”
She looked hurt.
“Okay, good night.” She held the door open for me.
I felt terrible and disappointed myself. Did I actually have romantic feelings for Arles? I wasn’t sure. But I was too damn conventional; it was partly her age and the idea of having to tell someone about us that held me back.
Still, there was something thrilling and natural about Arles that I’d never experienced in a woman. Even the hipsters I’d dated sometimes seemed to be putting on their nonchalance. There they were, obsessing over calories and body image, buying into so much crap, once you got to know them. Arles was genuinely as wild and unaffected and colorful as the bright Van Gogh print that meant so much to her.
I called her cell and, to my surprise, she answered. I was caught off guard and lamely said, “Thinking naughty thoughts of you!”
“What are you five? But thanks, you’re a pal.”
“I’m serious, can I—” I’m not sure if she heard this last or not because she was off the phone by then.
Arles was a little cold to me the next few weeks.
I tried to suggest that I had regrets but it was a no-go subject with her. I’d let her down at the moment of truth. The stubborn personal dignity I admired in her drove her in so many ways; wasn’t it some Little Sisterly pride and defensiveness that had made her go back to law school in the first place?
That summer, we were sent to a litigation seminar at a resort that also included prospective industrial clients. It was billed as a wild week in the North Woods, and it lived up to the hype on the first night, after a day of dull engineering presentations.
There was an alt-rock college band that played Wilco and Jayhawks covers, and Arles and I danced until nearly midnight. She was over being mad at me and had plenty of other men of all ages who were very interested in dancing with her.
And, to ensure that we didn’t get in any trouble, we both agreed to monitor each other and cut each other off at two drinks. At length, I wished her goodnight and left her fending off some sixtyish paunchy little engineer who’d kept asking the band to play the Doors. She shrugged with a smile and followed me down the hallway to her room. There was no doubt that Arles could take care of herself.
The next day was much the same–only the evening’s entertainment was to be a catered pool party beginning at five.
“This whole scene is really bumming me out.” Arles was frustrated and as restless as I’d ever seen her. “All of these old farts keep hitting on me, and what are there, like four women here?”
“I hear you. Maybe six if you count the waitresses.”
“I know you do, that pretty brunette keeps staring at you.”
“I’ve only danced with you, Arles.” I had noticed and spoken with the waitress, Isabella, a senior at the local UW campus. “Hey, hang in there–it’s just a half day tomorrow.”
“You better stay close to me.” We both grabbed our first glass of wine. “I’m not sure I’m gonna be able to stop at two.”
We were soon joined by some execs from one of the firms we were supposed to be making contacts with; but, since they hadn’t had to endure the Latest Technology seminar that Arles and I’d fidgeted through, they were already half in their cups. They were in shorts and sandals, while we were still in our seminar summer business suits.
“I’ll be right back Arles,” I said, feeling guilty for leaving her surrounded by these gawking schmucks. “I promise.”
As I came back from the head, the stocky owner of one of the big client firms—the dude who was wearing the ugliest green Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen– was actually taking bills out of his wallet and wrapping them in some kind of little ball so that they would sink when he threw them into the pool. The others around him roared with laughter.
“Three one-hundred dollar bills in the pool for the first one to dive in and get them,” the would-be Hawaiian was saying, looking especially at Arles and Isabella, the college-aged waitress. “If you’re not too shy.”
A group of men had gathered around Arles and the young waitress and were taunting and encouraging one of them to dive in for the bills. The waitress looked terrified but Arles looked both defiant and serene as she began unbuttoning her blouse to the cheers of the men around her. She had on a blue sports bra that could probably have passed for a bikini top.
I caught her eye and shook my head, as she undid her skirt and slipped out of her shoes. “Arles, no–don’t let them get to you!”
There was no ambiguity that she was wearing plain white cotton undies; lovely but perhaps slightly obscene little tufts of her auburn hair were visible along its edges. She was amazingly composed and beautiful, an adult woman of the species in the full bloom of her charms, as she dived artfully into the deep end of the pool and came out with the three little balls.
She didn’t look nearly so graceful—she looked sad and even a little pathetic with her wet hair and wet things—as she set the bills near me, grabbed her skirt and ran back to her room. I picked up the bills for her—she’d earned them, and I knew she would pay a terrible price for them.
I tried calling her repeatedly, but she didn’t pick up the phone. In the morning, I was told that she’d checked out early and had rented a car to go home.
The following Monday she was fired, in absentia, since she hadn’t shown up for work that day. The managing litigation partner called me in, too. He seemed more perplexed and concerned about her than angry. “Well, if it had just been a legal seminar maybe I could have just written her up, but these were clients! Of course, she has to go—she was representing me there!”
“You say she hadn’t had much at all to drink?”
“Not even one glass of wine, it was immediately after the seminar, and we were bird-dogging each other not to drink.”
“Why? Why do you think she did it? Everyone says the two of you were friends.” I just shook my head and opened up and showed him the empty palms of my hand. He went on, “It’s seems to me either she got off on it, or it was just a sort of career suicide.”
“She sure didn’t seem to be enjoying it.” I regretted saying even that; wasn’t I saying, then, that it was a career suicide? Were those really the only two options?
“And it wasn’t a bikini or a swimsuit was it? You observed that yourself?”
“Um, well, maybe…All I said for sure was that the colors didn’t match.”
He shook his head. “One of the young engineers said it was white cotton Hanes like his mother wears.”
“Do you know what kind of underwear your mom wears?” That comment ticked me off and my voice expressed it. “I don’t.”
He laughed nervously. “Nope, not a clue, but she’s 88, not 48.” I managed a smile. “We’re happy with your work, and we’re truly sorry about your friend and all we ask of you is to not spread any rumors or anything.”
“Of course not, I feel badly for her. She’s a brilliant lawyer and a very fine person.”
“Yes, I agree, on both points.” He got up to show me out.
I tried calling Arles’ cell for the next couple of weeks but couldn’t get through. At work, she’d become either the subject of bad jokes or the name you did not want to associate with your own. And there were rumors!
She’d been super drunk and was now in rehab at the Betty Ford Center in California; she was a sex addict now working as a high priced prostitute in Las Vegas (this one caught fire after the story of a former Olympic athlete doing exactly that); she’d married a wealthy Indian orthodontist she’d met online and now lived in Skokie, Illinois (the specificity of his ethnicity and of the precise Chicago suburb cost me hours of sleep and false starts tracking her down online); and, perhaps more plausibly, that she’d joined the Peace Corps and was teaching math to kids in Burkina Faso.
Really wanting to see her, I sorted through all of these rumors before I finally remembered that I knew the names and towns of her parents and of Dr. Sarah. I would either try to wheedle some useful information out of them or I could leave a message and hope that when she spoke with them over the next months that she’d respond.
Fortuitously, I was sent to Denver, where her parents lived, and even luckier, her state bar dues bill came due around the same time and I was entrusted by the firm to deliver this important correspondence to Arlene through her mother.
Her mother was a still striking woman in her late seventies; she had Arles’ bemused expression and those beautiful smart-arse, blue-green eyes. “I’ll make sure she gets it, but I’m under strict orders not to disclose her secret location—I swear you’d think she was in a bunker somewhere with Dick Cheney.” She smiled. “Whom should I tell her took the trouble to drive all the way over from the airport?”
“Oh, of course, the famous Jay-Jay. I’ve heard her mention you fondly.”
Two nights later, still in Denver, I got a call from Arles. “So, how’s the granary explosion business?”
“We settled those, but it’s nice to hear your voice. Where the hell are you?”
“I’m in downtown Denver, too.”
“So are we gonna to meet for drinks or what?”
“Sure, with just one condition, counselor. I don’t want to talk about Blue Lake.”
We met, and it turned out that the joy of being intimate with my darling Arles was just beginning for me. When was it that I’d fallen in love with her?
I couldn’t recall a time since that day we were both hired when she wasn’t the first person on my mind when I woke up and the last thing I thought about before I went to sleep.
We moved in together later that fall, and started our own boutique firm specializing in education law the following spring. We both love the kids (if not always the parents) that we work with, and once or twice we’ve even considered adopting or being foster parents.
The good quality Van Gogh print now hangs above our own bed; the three hundred bucks almost covered getting it framed.
Jeffrey Boldt’s credits include: Great River Review, Blueline, Interim, The J Journal, Tikkun, and Agave. Three of his poems have been included in anthologies. He has five recent short-stories in: The Missing Slate, The MacGuffin, Mistake House and Rosebud. Jeffrey recently received his Fiction MFA from Augsburg University in August, 2019.