I’d been walking fifteen feet behind her for at least two blocks. I wasn’t sure if I was following her. When I caught a glimpse of her face as I turned onto Shattuck Avenue, I felt as if an invisible rope was pulling me closer to her.
She was wearing a soft leather jacket that didn’t hide her athletic figure. Her black leather boots ended just below her knees. Her hair fell in wavy golden strands, ending a few inches below her shoulders. It crossed my mind that any sane man would want her permission to run his hands through it.
I’d known my share of beautiful women. But I never tried to meet any of them by following them down the street. So, with every step, I thought about how to go about doing something I wouldn’t have considered a good idea before that morning in early February.
I should have been hurrying to Chocolat to pick up a cake for Jackson. Chocolat sold a cake the size of a pizza but made with rich dark chocolate, sweet as victory and smooth as warm butter. Of course, Jackson could have whipped up one for himself, but hell, it was his birthday. He shouldn’t have to bake himself a cake, even though I knew he would. I also knew his cake would taste better.
But none of that was important anymore. There was no doubt I was following the golden hair swaying in front of me, trying out various openings in my mind. None of them seemed quite right. I needed something unusual to happen. Fortunately, it snowed that morning in Berkeley, California.
Many of the inhabitants of this college town had never experienced snow. They were skidding around as if the half-inch covering the ground converted the streets into a skating rink.
Suddenly, her boots slid forward from under her, and she went down hard on her bottom. She instinctively tried to break her fall with her right hand. When someone falls backward, it takes real discipline to implement the logic they can fracture their wrist but not their ass.
When she hit the ground, her purse snapped open, and its contents scattered around her. Fortunately, the snow kept them from going very far.
I rushed over to help her. Though I must admit that if she’d been a burly man rather than a young woman, I probably would have just kept on walking, chuckling discreetly.
Still, once I was sure she was unhurt, I had to stifle a laugh. She’d gone down with a comical thud.
She looked up at my hands, outstretched to help her. Her large, sea-green eyes were only one feature of the most beautiful face I’d ever seen. Her skin was flawless, a shade of coffee, heavy on the cream.
I waited. Beautiful women aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Often, they can be as much of a pain in the ass as falling hard on a slippery sidewalk.
However, I immediately knew that she had much more than her looks. She exuded a wonderful mixture of determination and mild humiliation. While fully appreciating the awkwardness of her situation, she was determined to overcome it with dignity.
“I don’t need help, thank you,” she said.
She tried to rise and promptly fell back in the same spot again.
“Maybe not, but a bit of leverage never hurts,” I said.
“On the other hand,” I continued, nodding at the sidewalk.
A hint of a smile raised the corners of her full mouth. We’re all aware that it happens. But how and why? Was it some pheromone? Was it the way she raised her eyebrows when she gave me that smile? How did I suddenly become convinced that I would give everything I owned, fight hopeless battles, and suffer hardships just to see her smile like that once in a while for years to come?
She took my hands. I helped her to her feet. We both bent down to gather up the contents of her purse.
“Please, really. I don’t need your help,” she said.
I rose quickly.
“Thank you again.”
She turned and began walking away.
“It doesn’t snow much in Brazil, does it?” I said to her back.
She turned around, staring at me with an expression of concern and confusion.
“Why would you say that about Brazil?”
“Well, I’m almost positive your hair is natural, but it’s obvious that you have some Latin blood. You speak English with a mild accent. It’s a Romance language, but it sounds more Russian than Italian or Spanish. Also, there’s a Rio Mardigra symbol dangling from that bracelet on your wrist.”
She tilted her head slightly.
“You’re very observant, aren’t you? Like some Sherlock Helmes detective.”
That’s how she pronounced it: Helmes.
“Did I also mention that a Brazilian Passport fell out of your bag?”
She studied my face with great care as if she were trying to decide something serious.
“You know,” I said. “It’s quite dangerous outside. Perhaps I could help you reach the safety of a nearby coffee shop. We could wait out the blizzard. I’m sure the streets will be safe in about an hour.”
“So, you just want to try and pick me up.”
“I believe I’ve already tried to pick you up. Twice.”
“Twice was enough, I think. Goodbye now. Better luck with the next woman.”
She turned again and displayed a disproportionate reaction of fear and anger.
“How do you know my name?” she said. “Is this some kind of test? Who sent you?”
“I have no idea what any of that means,” I said. “No one sent me. I glanced at the things in your purse when I bent to help you. There was a name on a letter, so I took a chance. You’re not wearing an engagement or wedding ring. If the thought of having coffee with a man who is simply trying to get to know you better frightens you in that way, perhaps we should talk about it. Sometimes help comes when you least expect it.”
“So, you’d like to find out all about me. My terrible fears, my tortured soul.”
She shook her head from side to side.
“Americans,” she snorted. “And after I unburden myself, will you tell me all your hopes and dreams? In your apartment, perhaps?”
“I have a house,” I said. “And I’m not going home. At least, not until I’m sure I can see you again.”
“I’m sorry, but I have no interest in seeing you again. And for the last time, goodbye. I must go now.”
“Stop,” I said.
“You can walk away,” I said with my most friendly smile. “But I’ll find a way to talk with you again.”
“No!” she said. “You can’t! You don’t understand.”
“Forgive my bad manners. I’m Michael Case. I’m sure you have good reasons to think that we can’t be friends, but perhaps you’re wrong. We wouldn’t be standing here talking if you didn’t want to talk to me. You’d already be gone. I also know that you can talk with me and nothing bad will come of it. I have resources you can’t imagine.”
Her eyes narrowed. Then her words came out carefully.
“Believe me. You cannot begin to imagine the reasons why we shouldn’t be talking to each other.”
She shivered, even though the sun was already melting the snow. Although I’d known her for only a few minutes, I hated to see it.
“Okay, I won’t push. May I suggest a compromise? Have one coffee with me. Just one coffee. If after that, you don’t want to see me again, I swear you never will.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” she said.
I didn’t have to answer. It was clear that she’d already decided.
During the next four months, we spent as much time together as we could. She said I should call her Callie. She’d become a realtor a short time ago and often attended seminars. I traveled as well. Whenever we could, we’d take walks, go to shows, or drive north to tour the wineries. We went sailing on Aram Cooper’s yacht a few times.
The one thing we never did was touch.
After we’d spent time together for a couple of weeks, I thought I sensed something and tried to kiss her. Her reaction was so dramatic that I never tried again. I waited patiently to know if she’d ever want to be more than my friend. Because that’s what she had become. Not only my friend but my best friend. I could make her laugh about some foolish thing and then keep going, saying more and more, until she collapsed with laughter. She’d hold up her hands to make me stop so that she could catch her breath.
We didn’t talk about the past or the future. Instead, we talked about things we saw and felt in the moment.
Callie was in her twenties, and I was ten years older. Our minds intertwined on some subjects, and we disagreed on others. Whenever we disagreed, we’d debate late into the night. Finally, we respectfully traded opinions while trying as hard as possible to prove each other’s arguments were ridiculous.
After a couple of months, she came to my house. She had wanted to see it ever since the afternoon I mentioned I had a swimming pool in my backyard.
“A real swimming pool?” she said.
“A big one,” I said. “Olympic size. The solar panels keep the water very comfortable.”
“Can people see it, Case?”
Sometimes Callie called me Case, as Jackson always did in his lilting Haitian accent. Aram invariably referred to me as Michael. Callie went from one to the other with her mood.
“No one can see anything,” I said. “My house is at the top of the hills, just below the park. The security enclosures are one-way view only. You can see out as if they weren’t there, but no one can see in. Not even from the air. If Aram gets an idea about SAM or anything else when he’s here, he scratches it down immediately. He’s not taking any chances after what happened three years ago. However, if you’re shy, I should tell you that Louie and Fred always monitor the areas outside the walls of the house.”
“Louie and Fred?”
“Two of Aram’s security team. They take shifts on the vid monitors, watching two acres in every direction. They also keep an eye on external areas like the deck and the pool. Considering the electronic security in the house, the voice recognition sensors, the hidden panic buttons, the vids I can activate, I thought it was overkill, but Aram insisted on it.”
“So, no topless sunbathing?”
“Well, Louie and Fred are sworn to secrecy. And part of the deal was that I’d be the one to sign their checks. So I have gotten them to close one eye once in a while.”
“I’ll bet,” she said. “A swimming pool in the Berkeley hills. I’ve never heard of such a thing. How did you get around the zoning restrictions? The water laws? How is it possible?”
“It’s specially constructed. The water is recycled. The security enclosures gather condensation from the air, filter it, and feed it back into the pool. There aren’t many people in Berkeley who have as much money as I do.”
“Aram has more money,” Callie said with a knowing smile.
“Oh, yes. The city council likes their parks and monuments. Aram could probably buy a sizeable chunk of the Berkeley Hills and turn it into an amusement park ride if he felt like it. But he prefers pouring his money into that floating Sausalito palace he calls a houseboat. That is, of course, whenever he gets away from his lab, which isn’t often.”
“You know, you’re one of the few people Aram likes,” I said. “I think it’s because you get along so well with Kristin.”
“Kris is amazing.”
“My, I love to swim,” she added softly.
“So why not come and swim.”
I watched her daydream about the pool for a minute or two.
“I even stock bathing suits for close relatives and the truly needy,” I said.
“You don’t have any close relatives. Anyway, you can relax. I come fully equipped. I’m from Rio. I was born in a bikini.”
When I had the first of many discussions with architects,contractors, and decorators, I told them that their most important goal was to integrate the house as much as possible into the surrounding neighborhood. They had two other priorities: The house needed to be as comfortable as it was beautiful, and it had to be so beautiful that it would take a first-time visitor’s breath away.
When Callie saw the house, her expression let me know that not only had they taken my instructions seriously, but they had succeeded beyond my imagination.
“Say hello and your name,” I said as she crossed the threshold.
“Hello, Michael’s house. I’m Calena Lacerda.”
“And I’m Michael Case. Today’s code is Shilo. Calena Lacerda, A.K.A Callie, is my guest. Save in memory. There are no security restrictions on her.”
Aram’s program identified my voice and responded, “Understood, Mr. Case.”
I let her wander around, interfering only when her hand came too close to a canvas of swirling oils.
“Don’t get any closer,” I warned her. “If you do, a large group of heavily armed men will bang down the front door.”
“Well, I could probably stop them.”
“No, I mean, you’re telling me that’s the real one?”
“Incredible, isn’t it? It was a gift.”
We swam, ate, and laughed, and swam again. Every day, I fought desires and impulses. It was difficult to prevent myself from telling her how much I wanted her to stay with me forever.
Every day, thoughts of holding her, kissing her, being with her muted everything around me. I was happy and miserable, both emotions coming within minutes of each other. The fact I’d spent much of my life controlling my thoughts and feelings was the only reason I was able to hide my desire for her. It took a great deal of my concentration to make her believe that if being her friend was all I could ever hope to be, it would be enough.
As for Callie, I caught a look once in a while, a different type of glance. In an unguarded moment, she might move her hand towards my arm. There were times when I sensed small indications she wanted more. She wasn’t a prude and didn’t tease me. I knew she enjoyed my company, but she never crossed the line between friendship and intimacy. I wondered if she believed, as I did, that if we embraced, there would be no going back. She let me know, in a hundred different ways, that we could never be lovers.
About four months after I met her, I was waiting for her at my house in the early evening. We had tickets to the San Francisco Ballet. She said she was showing a couple of homes in the hills, and she’d meet me at my place for a drink before we left.
When I opened the door, she stunned me. She was wearing a clinging red dress with a plunging neckline. Her heels raised her so that her lips were almost even to mine. The only jewelry she wore was the diamond earrings I had tricked her into taking from me.
“We have time for a glass of wine,” I said.
“That’s good,” she said, taking a small step down into the living room.
I poured two glasses of Cabernet from the winery I financed for a friend in Napa Valley. We didn’t make money. He loved the vineyard, and I loved the wine he made when the grapes cooperated.
I turned to hand a glass to her. Then we froze. She was breathing deeply. She stared at me, and her body tensed. Puzzled, I smiled.
She said, “No.”
Then she blinked slowly and evenly as if concentrating on that small act could make her stop what happened next.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “I can’t anymore.”
She rushed towards me. I threw the glasses aside. She put her hands on the sides of my face, kissing me deeply. I discovered my fantasies about her had been inadequate. She tasted like desire. Pure, thrilling, uncontrollable.
I wouldn’t let her mouth leave mine as I reached around behind her and opened the back of her dress. It fell to the floor. My breath caught in my throat when I saw she wasn’t wearing a bra. I’d seen her in a bikini, but I was unprepared for her naked body.
She pulled her mouth away.
“Take off your shirt,” she said, starting on the buttons.
Callie moaned. Everywhere I touched her was silken and firm. The thrill of having her in my arms intensified my certainty I fell in love with her on the day we met.
Because she’d been so distant, I felt I should be gentle, but Callie released something powerful within her. She pulled me against her and backed us against the wall. We kissed until we both needed more.
When I touched her where she wanted, she entwined her fingers in my hair and told me, “Yes, querida, hard, kiss me hard there. I need you.”
The pressure of her against me was primal. It felt as if we had discovered lovemaking, its joy and power. Nothing mattered except the two of us.
“I can’t wait any longer,” she breathed through our kisses.
I tore off my clothes and kicked them aside. She still wore heels. I balanced her weight as we joined together as if we had rehearsed it a thousand times. We moved against each other, the rhythm of our muscles locked together. It was an eternity and only a short time when suddenly she cried out my name, and her body spasmed, pulsing around me. A powerful release broke through her, and I felt a great happiness rush through me. I knew that if her pleasure had come so powerfully and quickly, it could only mean that she had been with me in her mind all day. That was only fair. She had been in my mind for four months.
After the first waves passed through her, she relaxed and breathed deeply, making soft grunting noises in the back of her throat.
I gently kissed her forehead.
This is the moment, I thought.
As she leaned against me, I was positive that she would never have let this happen unless she had fallen in love with me.
She felt me inside her, looked up shyly, and said, “You’re not finished?”
I picked her up. Holding her against me, I kissed her deeply and carried her towards one of the bedrooms.
“Finished?” I said, smiling down at her. “We’ve just started.”
She laughed softly.
“Oh yes, yes, we have. Jump started, I’d say.”
That night we played together, exploring each other. We laughed and cried out. As the sun rose, Callie’s head rested on my chest. Her hair tickled my cheek.
“You’re sure this is what you want?” I said.
“I’m sure it doesn’t matter,” she said, raising her head to kiss me. “It had to be done. And now it’s done.”
She kissed me once again, this time more deeply.
“Don’t worry, querida,” she said. “My father used to say that worries are only the foolish part of imagination.”
“It sounds better in Portuguese,” she said.
“In that case, use the other part and imagine this,” I said, pulling her closer.
In the early afternoon, she asked for some clothes so she could go home, a place that I’d never seen. I began to argue, saw her face, and stopped. I had learned that when Callie was determined to do something, it was nearly impossible to change her mind.
At the door, we kissed goodbye. We made plans to see each other again. As she was walking away, she turned around suddenly.
“Michael,” she said. “Please, no matter what happens, promise you’ll forgive me.”