This is the fifty-fifth chapter of an ongoing series. This chapter continues the story of Rob Ballinger's life after his arrival in Los Angeles in the summer of 1972.
Thanks again for all your comments on this series. I always appreciate hearing from readers and try to answer all messages promptly. If I'm slow at times it is only because of the pressure of work or my somewhat demanding travel schedule.
Andrew has continued to give much needed proofing and editorial help, for which I am sincerely grateful. I could not post chapters as quickly as I've been doing without his invaluable assistance.
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The rest of that week was a blur. I spent Wednesday afternoon and a good part of the night working on the passage of Call the Dark Waters Basingstoke had given me to work on. Once I'd gotten into a sort of workable procedure the actual writing of the dialog came quickly. I began to feel as if I understood the separate characters of the two women, Marge, the narrator of the original novel, and her lover, Brook.
At Basingstoke's meeting on Thursday he went on and on about the progress we were making and how happy he was with what he perceived to be a real breakthrough. No mention was made of the meeting the previous day. Peg and Larry looked at me knowingly a couple of times but nothing was said. I almost expected one or both of them to take me aside after the larger group broke up but they made no attempt to get my attention and I went on home.
At Alvarado Court I tossed workout clothes in my bag and went on to the gym. I worked out hard for over an hour. Again, there was no sign of Hank or Billy.
On Friday I slept late and woke thinking about my date with Nita that evening. I felt as if I knew what she had in mind and I wasn't at all sure how I felt about it. I'd had sex with Joyce, of course, but that was different. I'd known her and felt very emotionally connected with her. I have to admit I actually enjoyed sex with Joyce, even if it wasn't something I'd have initiated. I knew it was her first time and she knew I'd never had sex with a woman before so there wasn't much pressure to perform or even to know what we were doing.
With Nita, if she really did want to have sex with me as I suspected, I knew I was dealing with a totally different situation. She was older and, I suspected, fairly experienced, maybe very experienced. I wondered if she assumed I was knowledgeable about women and would bring with me all the skills she's expect from a practiced lover.
Frankly, I wasn't at all sure I wanted to have sex with Nita. I knew I preferred sex with men. I also suspected that going to bed with Nita could complicate my life.
Well, I thought, the day and the evening ahead would be interesting and I'd just have to flow with it. So with those thoughts in my head I went to the pool.
I had the place to myself for over an hour but when I saw Emmanuel, the Mexican guy, was mowing the lawn, I went up to my apartment and made iced tea for the two of us.
A few minutes after I returned, and just as I'd expected, he wandered back and sat chatting with me for a while. He seemed pleased that I'd brought two glasses of tea and he really looked as if he needed something wet and cold. The day was becoming muggy and the sky was gray and overcast which, I was beginning to learn, was a common occurrence in LA.
Emmanuel pulled off his shirt and moved to the chaise lounge next to mine. He looked as if he'd settled in for a while so I put down my book and just chatted with him.
"You are not from here, Roberto," he said, a question I supposed, although it sounded like a statement.
"No, Emmanuel," I said, "I'm from Mississippi."
"Are there Mexican people there?"
"Not many," I told him, realizing I'd not known any. In those days the only ethnic groups common in Spring River were whites and blacks and a few oriental rice farmers who drifted over from Arkansas from time to time. Later, on subsequent trips back to Mississippi, I began to see a gradual influx of Hispanic people, mostly workers in the growing poultry industry, but in the early 1970s they were almost unknown in that area.
"So you do not have the good food my people bring with us."
"Well, I guess not," I said.
"We make a great contribution to the culture of California," he said, stretching his deeply tanned body. He ran his hand over the side of the iced tea glass, collecting the dampness on the palm of his hand, and then stroking himself, leaving a wet, glistening streak across his defined chest.
"Yes, I'm sure you do."
"You do not speak Spanish."
"No matter," he said, his black eyes fixed on me, "I speak English very well."
"Yes," I agreed.
We sat in silence for a while. I wasn't sure if he wanted to make further conversation but I left it to him. Eventually he got up, thanked me for the tea, and went back to his work.
"I must trim the grass along the walks," he said by way of explanation.
"Okay, Emmanuel," I said. "I'll see you soon."
"Yes, soon," he said, his eyes again fixed on mine for a moment. Then he turned and left.
I read for a while longer but just after two I went up to my apartment. It was cool inside and I was tired. Stripping off my wet Speedos, I dried myself and stretched out naked on the bed. I slept soundly until almost five o'clock.
I woke from a dream in which I seemed to be faced with some looming uncertainty. I heard my own voice saying, "No! Yes! No!"
Oddly, it wasn't Nita or anybody else I could identify to whom I was speaking. It was myself I was addressing.
Maybe my subconscious was reminding me that I didn't have to agree to anything I didn't want to do. I could politely say "no" to anything I felt uncomfortable about. A part of me looked forward to the evening with Nina with apprehension, even dread, but part of me was ready for whatever she had in mind. I lay on the bed for a few minutes longer but by then it was time to get up and shower and shave and drive out to Nita's to meet my fate.
Once dressed, I went to the bedside table and took a strip of three condoms from the box and put them in my slacks pocket. Was that an admission to myself that I was prepared to have sex with Nita if that proved to be her intention, or just an attempt to be prepared for any development? I asked myself the question but didn't answer it.
On the way north I stopped at the corner of Alvarado and Sunset where a street vendor was selling flowers. When I pulled to the curb he came over, offering me two or three tissue-wrapped bouquets.
"The roses are very nice for your lady," he said with an almost unintelligible Hispanic accent.
I wondered how did he know I was heading out on a date, but then realized I probably wouldn't be buying flowers otherwise. I was hardly used to the role I found myself in.
I also realized I certainly looked the part of the would-be lover, carefully dressed in my newest and neatest khaki slacks and most preppie polo shirt. Nita had said we might eat outside and it could get cool so the cardigan my parents had given me the previous Christmas lay beside me on the passenger seat.
I bought a dozen yellow roses for five dollars, too much, I knew, but I didn't argue.
The drive out took longer than I'd expected and I arrived a little late, going too far west before heading north, and then heading back east in search of Nita's address up in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The place was located on an east-west street which seemed to parallel the southern edge of a scrubby, forested area.
The houses on the north side were clearly larger and newer and backed up to the hilly woods. On the south side where, I'd figured from the street numbers, I'd find Nita's address, the houses seemed smaller and the lots narrower.
I passed a dozen boys, probably eleven or twelve year olds. They were playing some sort of improvised ball game in the street, but moved to the curb as I drove by, looking with interest at the car, but clearly a little annoyed at me for disturbing their game.
A block further on I found Nita's address and parked at the curb across from the small, neat house. The lawn was small but looked as if it had been professionally landscaped and carefully tended. The house was basically a rectangle with a nearly flat roof and dark brown vertical siding. The windows were high and the only feature which set the place apart from its neighbors was a large stone chimney at the west end of the house.
I locked the car, something I'd not have done in Mississippi in those days and, with the flowers and my sweater in hand, crossed the street to the house.
"Hi, Sweetie," Nita purred when she opened the door, then "oh, how nice," when I handed her the flowers.
She was wearing a one piece jump suit. It was loose, sleeveless and made of some soft yellow fabric with a pattern of crossing green lines. The outfit looked cool and informal and as she turned to lead me back into the living room I got the distinct impression from the movement of her body that she wasn't wearing anything under it.
I thought again that my suspicions
about Nita's plans for the evening were correct.
As she led me back toward the rear of the house I noticed she was barefooted. Well, Rob, old boy, I thought to myself, go or no-go, you'd better make up your mind!
"Why don't you go ahead and light the grill, Rob," Nita said when we reached the small, neat kitchen. She pointed to a pair of sliding glass patio doors and proceeded to work on a salad in a big wooden bowl on the counter.
As I slid open the doors and stepped out onto a wide timber deck I was struck by a view of the vast metropolis which seemed to spread off into infinity below me. I walked to the edge of the deck and looked down into a small, beautifully landscaped garden which seemed to be accessible from a lower level of the house. Looking back at the rear wall of the house I was that there was a second pair of sliding patio doors which seemed to open off a bedroom.
I'd not realized from the street how dramatically the site descended from front to rear and I'd had no hint until I stepped onto the deck of the magnificent view over the city.
Nita had laid charcoal in the grill and matches were waiting on a small table. I squirted a little fire starter from a metal can and lit the fire, which leaped into flame but soon settled down to a low, flickering glow. I figured in fifteen or twenty minutes it would be ready.
"The view is spectacular," I said as I went back into the kitchen.
"That's what convinced me to buy the house," Nita said, looking up from the salad. I saw that she'd put the roses in a vase. "I hope I planned enough food for you," she added.
"The salad looks huge."
"Well, that's about it, that and steaks. Do you want to do the honors and grill them?"
"Sure, but the fire won't be ready for a while."
"Why don't you open the wine," she said, nodding toward a pair of bottles on the counter a little to her left. A corkscrew was lying by them, ready to be used.
Picking up one of the identical bottles, I remembered watching out of the corner of my eye as Hank had opened the wine at my apartment a few nights earlier. Trying to look as knowledgeable as possible, I followed the steps he'd taken. For lack of a knife, I used the point of the corkscrew to pierce and cut away the foil wrapper over the cork, then inserted it and twisted it in. I was surprised and pleased when the cork slid out easily, allowing me to look like I knew what I was doing.
Nita had sat out two glasses, not slender ones like the once Hank had chosen for the Sauvignon Blanc, but a wider, more globular type, which I assumed were appropriate for the deep red wine she'd provided.
Remembering an old film in which Adolph Menjou poured a little wine into a glass and swirled it around before offering it to his female costar, I did the same, then handed the glass to Nita for her appraisal.
She smiled at me, smelled it carefully and took a discerning sip.
"It's a Mendocino Pinot Noir," she said. "I hope you like it."
I remembered that Mendocino was a town on the coast north of San Francisco but didn't associate it with wine production. I decided Hank had been right. If I was going to live in California I'd better learn at least a little about wine.
I poured a little into the other glass and swirled it as I'd done before, then lifted it to my nose and took a deep breath. It smelled spicy with a heavy, almost earthy fragrance which for some odd reason immediately reminded me of the Mississippi river and the damp bottom lands of home.
Suddenly my mind jolted back to dark, humid nights with Rick at the little cabin south of James and my heart made an almost painful leap. An involuntarily moan escaped my lips, which Nita took as appreciation of the wine.
"Wonderful, isn't it?"
"Yes," I managed to say, then covered my emotions by taking a tentative sip. If anything, the taste only confirmed what the fragrance had already told me. The wine was dark and heavy and full of secrets. I couldn't decide if I really liked it or not, but I sensed that in time I would.
The salad done, we poured more generous portions of the wine and carried our glasses out onto the deck, where we sat side by side and watched the lights come on over Los Angeles.
As we sipped the wine and waited for the fire in the grill to smolder into glowing embers I realized that without any conscious thought I'd made a decision. I reached across the narrow space between us and took Nita's hand. If she wanted me, I'd make love to her tonight.
She squeezed my hand slightly and turned to smile, a simple, gentle smile.
The agreement had been struck.
To be continued.