Betrayal of Trust
It's obvious that Cole, the Cirronian who thinks that clothes "feel strange" really enjoyed showing off his nice human body to a very appreciative female audience ... But how did Mel feel about it?
Spoilers for the Pilot episode, "Cloud Nine," "Roswell" and, of course, "Trust."
Hours later, long past our normal closing time, I was still dazed and all but overwhelmed with guilt as Jess, Sondra, Aline, Doreen and Kate saw the last of our deliriously happy customers out the door, escorted some to cars and waiting cabs, and bade them all good night and safe travel home. My thoughts and emotions were in such turmoil that I could barely even respond as the night's temporary help then began checking out as well, leaving Jess and I alone to clean the place up.
The Watchfire was in shambles, such a complete disaster area of litter, refuse, spilled drinks, broken glassware and overturned furniture it almost qualified for Federal disaster relief. The numerous pieces of paper with names, phone numbers and lascivious notes scribbled on them I sort of expected to find. And Jess did warn me that some of the women would likely be throwing their panties along with their money – although I had thought she was joking about that! – but ... Thongs? Bras? Garters? Pink handcuffs? A whip? A pair of peacock feathers? A faux fur tiger-striped jockstrap with a tail? Packets of glow-in-the-dark condoms?
Good God!Has my life really been so sheltered?
I mean, I'd seen a few all-male reviews' back in my college days, but I'd never seen anything like this before. Then again, I'd never seen a performance quite like that before, either!
It seems that Jess' latest bright idea for bringing in needed business with a "Ladies Night Out" – complete with a hot male swimsuit model cum stripper performing the full monte' display of his supposedly "incredible package" – didn't work out exactly as she'd planned. Not by a long shot!
Initially, I'd nixed the entire idea. Not only do I want the place to be upscale, sophisticated and adult – but not that kind of adult, thank you very much! – the entire idea of anyone, female or male, stripping down to their birthday suit for a panting, leering mob just doesn't do it for me. And contrary to what some of my ex-boyfriends might tell you, it's not that I'm a prude! I'm not a prude at all! I just strongly believe that a striptease should be an intimate and erotic pleasure shared between lovers to bring a spicy added dimension to their relationship. A calculating I'm gonna shamelessly strut my stuff and take it all off so all you nameless and unknown horny people can drool yourselves silly over my glorious naked body' done in a public forum has always struck me – yes, even when I DID attend such things in college! – as a prurient, empty and sadly impersonal substitute for the joys of true intimacy.
Born and raised in London and having a far more Continental outlook about these things, Jess naturally thought my reticence had to do with typically repressed and narrow-minded American societal taboos on nudity and sex. Certainly I'm aware that worldly audiences in most Western European countries wouldn't even think twice about such a striptease. Yet I'm a product of my upbringing and can't help how I feel about it, so even her arguing that she didn't understand why "one guy in the buff for one night is such a big deal" didn't sway my opinion on the matter in the slightest.
One of the two things that finally did serve to sway me were the books. There was no denying the hard, cold-cash reality of it. Since I inherited the place seven months ago the Watchfire has been operating at a steady loss. If it wasn't for the fact that I own the building free and clear, I would've had to padlock the doors by the second or third month. Hell, it wasn't even breaking even in the last half-dozen years that my grandmother had it!
And there didn't seem to be a whole lot I could do to change things for the better no matter what I tried. And believe me, I was constantly trying and open to suggestions!
You see, I'd never really planned on being the proprietor of a bar. I've always wanted to become a lawyer like my father. It's just that I decided to take a break from the grind of a lifetime of constant education after I graduated college and finished my pre-law courses and the years then seemed to slip by. Then my grandmother fell seriously ill and I had to take care of her during the last years of her life while managing the Watchfire for her as well and, on top of all that, I became deeply involved with Rod and ... Well, let's just say that my life became extremely complicated and there weren't enough hours in the day as things were, so it never happened.
Anyway, after my grandmother died and the Watchfire passed to me, I likely would've sold it in order to fund my tuition and finally pursue my dream, save for one thing: just minutes before my grandmother passed away she roused herself long enough to have me promise that the bar would remain in our family no matter what. Although she didn't live long enough to explain to me why she was insisting on such a thing, I gave her my word and I've been trying to honor that promise ever since.
But I was beginning to run out of options.
Among more recent attempts, hosting things like chess, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit tournaments weren't working out too well. They did help, of course, but not too many seemed all that interested and those that were really weren't the thirsty types for much beyond water. The karoke nights' idea I had seemed like a good one at the time but it proved to be a major bust. Again, no one really seemed to be particularly interested.
The bar consultant Jess next suggested I bring in then snootily told me that wood is passé and I should remodel the entire place in steel. Yeah, right! Like I want it to look like a morgue or a high-tech lab. And how, pray tell, is that supposed to bring in business anyway? Besides, I'd spent a great deal of time and money restoring the wooden interior back to the glory of its original 1940's Lewis Sullivan design and I really like the warm and invitingly homey results.
Then Jess came up with turning the place into one of those trendy oxygen' bars, but inadvertently obtained tanks of helium instead. Poor Cole. She tested them out on him and he ended up talking in this high-pitched Mickey Mouse voice for a while. I mean, it was funny, but ... There went another idea down the tubes.
Now this ... Oh, yeah, I know such places are a really big hit with quite a number of women – the Chippendale's franchise, for example, comes readily to mind – enough of a hit to attract lots of nightly business seven days a week, to have the place reserved months in advance for birthday parties, bachelorette parties, congratulations-on-your-divorce parties and the like, but still ...
Well, anyway, the other thing that decided me, the main thing, really, is that I don't have just myself and my promise to my grandmother to worry about any more. If I lost the bar and my home above it I'd certainly be devastated and probably have to work my way through a morass of guilt for not living up to my grandmother's wishes as well – but I know I'd somehow find a way to manage, I know I'd somehow find something else. So would Jess, if it ever came to that.
But I now have Cole to worry about as well. I'm responsible for him. He depends on me. And it's now more imperative than ever that I continue to maintain the place so he can be assured a safe, stable, secure and uninterrupted base of operations for his work.
So, stifling my considerable misgivings, I gave Jess the green light to make the arrangements. She promised that "the crumbs will be off the floor, the panties in the bin, and the horny housewives will be gone before the sun comes up." And I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
You know the old adage, anything that can go wrong, will'? Yep! The story of my life.
The night started off well enough with a steady stream of eager female clientele of all sizes, shapes, ages, varieties and descriptions arriving hours in advance and settling in to stake out the best vantage points. And even better than Jess had predicted it would be, nearing showtime the place was standing-room-only packed solid. Judging from the cover charges Doreen was collecting at the door, the crowd was near capacity, close to the fire code regulations! I had to admit, this guy certainly had an extensive reputation and commanded a loyal and lusty following.
But when showtime came and went and he still hadn't even arrived, I (along with the waiting crowd) was starting to get edgy.
Finally the phone rang and Jess hurried to answer it, then signaled me that it was him.
"Jess! Well? Where is he?" I hopefully asked when she'd hung up, the expression on her face and the look in her eyes inspiring a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach.
"Uh ... There's been a ... ah ... slight delay ..." she gamely said. "It's gonna be fine."
"So! He's on his way! Right?" I prodded, becoming anxious.
"Not exactly. No," she admitted with tightly controlled fury. "He's got cold feet, Mel! He doesn't want to stand on the bar and take his clothes off in front of a bar full of strangers!"
Neither of us really noticed that Cole was standing right there listening intently until he spoke up and asked the obvious: "He was going to take his clothes off for your customers?"
"Yeah!"Jess said, her anger and frustration causing her to become uncharacteristically sharp and dismissive with him. "Well, that IS the meaning of full monte', Cole!"
He'd been curious what that phrase meant since the first time he'd heard it and now he knew.
By that point the crowd was highly impatient and becoming mean-spirited and unruly over the delay, so Jess and I hurried about trying to figure out what we could do in the way of damage control. With such a serious public relations problem on our hands I didn't attach any significance to the fact that we'd left Cole standing there at the other end of the bar, scanning the crowd and muttering "Full monte ... Full monte ..." to himself. I mean, it never for a moment even occurred to me that he would ever ...
Anyway, Jess had just informed me that she and the gals were already liberally pouring out free drinks in an effort to calm tempers and keep everyone in line and I was trying to decide what else we could possibly do, when the crowd erupted with screaming, whooping, whistling and clapping in obvious anticipation.
We both looked up and ... Well, I simply could NOT believe what I was seeing. There was Cole, standing atop the bar in his loose-fitting jersey and baggy jeans, clapping back to the audience with a dopey grin on his face. He certainly wasn't the man they'd come to see but, since he is very handsome and since even those ill-fitting clothes don't wholly mask the great body underneath, many of the women were immediately enthralled or, at very least, curious enough to see what he might have to offer them.
Jess recovered her wits about her first – I've yet to recover mine! – and raced to put on the tape of dance music while I just stood there blinking like a complete idiot. The first thought to pop into my head was: Oh, no! It's taken me most of this month just to get him to remember to keep his clothes ON! And then it hit me like a sledgehammer what he was up to!
I felt as if my back had been shoved smack up against a firing squad wall, not knowing exactly what to do about it, not knowing what I could do, not even knowing if I had the right to do anything at all. I mean, as naïve as Cole may appear to be in some ways, he's very definitely a fully consenting mentally and emotionally mature adult. And a highly intelligent and competent one at that. And I'm not his mother or even his girlfriend! How could I possibly claim the right to tell him what he should or shouldn't be doing? While he certainly does need guidance and instruction in functioning as a human in a human world, he doesn't need to be shielded as if he's an innocent child.
Conversely, I so wanted to rush over there and drag him bodily off the bar before he could do anything at all – and never mind if doing so might embarrass the hell out of the both of us or even royally piss-off all those eagerly salivating ladies in the audience!
But my indecision on the matter made me hesitate too long and I found myself all out of time to do anything at all because the music started to play and Cole began to dance. If I had tried to break it up and put a stop to what he was doing then, I surely would've had a full-scale riot on my hands.
All I wanted to do at that point was fall through the floor or run away and stick my head in the ground like an ostrich, but at the same time I felt obligated to stay put so I could look out for him as best as I could under the circumstances and handle any fallout. So what I did, I'm ashamed to say, was brace myself, knock back a few tequila shooters to steady my nerves, and hope for the best!
Now I have to say that, initially, I was almost lulled into thinking that things wouldn't be so bad after all because it began as kind of a shy and innocent type of striptease, if you catch my meaning: not very smoothly executed at first and even sort of sweetly awkward. It was sexy, sure, but more boyishly coy and cute than blatantly erotic per se because Cole was basically imitating the shake your booty' bumps and grinds that the women in the audience were doing and that Sondra and (especially!) Jess were coaching him with from the sidelines.
But it must be remembered that Cole's learning curve in all things is nothing short of phenomenal. From the reactions and encouragement he was getting from the crowd, he was certainly having no trouble at all determining what was working well, what wasn't, and what was further wanted, so he was soon beginning to elaborate on his moves, adding some style all his own. And then his success and growing confidence began to feed off of itself ...
When he delightedly called out, "They're hot for me, Mel!" with this great big sappy grin on his face, I felt like kicking myself! Weeks ago I had the perfect opportunity to tell him the full meaning of the term hot for me,' but I chickened out due to my own embarrassment and lamely gave him the word like' as a synonym. From the way he was reacting to the whole "hot for me" thing, he still seemed to think it only meant that the crowd liked him, perhaps in this case a whole lot. Well, of course they liked him, but he didn't realize that like' and hot' really aren't completely interchangeable because I'd never explained the differences to him!
Then Jess, noting the escalating excitement he was inspiring in the audience, blurted out, "Hey, Mel! You think he could do this every Friday night?" and I was so shocked – both at the idea of having a Full Monte Night' every week and Cole being that full monte' – I didn't even know how to respond!
So, okay! There he was dancing around up there stripped down to his briefs – so what else is new? – and I'm thinking to myself that I could handle it. After all, the vitals were certainly covered and the briefs actually revealed a good deal less than a Speedo would. Right?
Dear God!I thought that would be the end of it. I really, really, REALLY hadn't figured on Cole taking the strip all the way to the actual full monte.' I swear I didn't. And I honestly don't believe that anyone else did, either. Everyone, and I do mean absolutely everyone, was completely blown away when he did, stunned into a moment of utter silence.
But then the audience loudly roared its unanimous approval and all became bedlam as the next dance cut came on – this one with a hard-driving disco beat – and Cole really began cutting loose! For me to even try to make him stop at that point would've been suicidal!
Wearing only a devastating zillion-megawatt smile and undulating to the heavy percussion rhythm, he danced and swayed to the tempo of the music, boldly making eye contact with each and every woman there as moved back and forth along the entire length of the bar, not only taking complete control of the room, consummately claiming ownership! He was a sight the likes of which I'll never forget and I don't think anyone else in the audience ever will, either.
And I could swear he knew EXACTLY what he was doing! He HAD to! He isn't stupid and the evidence was all right there in front of him!The women were becoming frenzied, climbing up on the tables and chairs, virtually climbing up the damn walls, many reduced to quivering masses of screaming, howling, whimpering, sobbing, moaning jelly, some fainting dead away on the spot! Even Jess, with all her sassy Continental outlook', went all glassy-eyed and slack-jawed.
That wasn't my sweet, innocent, naive, gentle Cole up there anymore. That was a part of him I'd never seen before, never even suspected was within him, the primal archetype of a virile male, inspiring enough raw heat to liquefy the Polar ice caps!
By the third cut – a faster and even more aggressive disco number! – he was off in some world of his own making and was no longer even looking at the crowd – and they were all too far gone to even notice! I was clinging to the handles of the cabinets by then, just trying to remain upright, just trying to remember to keep breathing, forgetting anything or anyone else in the world even existed and unable to take my eyes off of him! I had no idea a human body could move so fluidly, could be so incredibly strong and flexible! I mean, he left the best dancers and Olympic gymnasts I've ever seen in the dust!
He had to have been up there a good ten, maybe closer to fifteen minutes, going through a long dance set in which each cut was faster, more aggressive, more erotically charged than the one before. And he was keeping up with it without ever once so much as faltering in either the tempo or the rhythm, like he could keep doing it forever, like he'd been born to do just that!
And then whole world came to an abrupt standstill as Cole cried out, "Mel! Come dance with me!" and reached down, beckoning that I take hold of his hand and join him up there. His eyes were wild with excitement, blazing hot and molten in a look much like I've seen from many a man. I nearly went into cardiac arrest. How could that look possibly mean the same thing coming from a man who isn't even human? My lungs felt far too small for my chest and my chest much too tight for my heart and it was no longer a matter of remembering TO breathe; it had become a matter of remembering HOW to breathe!
Would I have taken that offered hand? Even now, I don't really know.
But I never even had the time to find out.
From out of nowhere, this young woman – one of those slutty Wing twins, I believe – suddenly vaulted atop the bar, howling like a demented banshee and making a grabbing tackle for him. Cole spun away and she missed him completely, flying right over the top of the bar to crash into Sondra, the two of them landing in a heap of tangled limbs at Jess' feet and nearly knocking her down as well. And just like that Cole seemingly vanished and the spell he'd cast was broken. The only way I knew where he had gone was that the stairwell door closes slower than he is able to move.
No one was hurt and, true to how Jess promised it would be, all those ladies were then so very, very thirsty that we couldn't pour the drinks fast enough. Doreen then opened the front door and it was as if half the guys in the Greater Chicago area had gotten wind of the fact that the Watchfire was populated with women who'd just come into heat and they all came running to see if they could get lucky.
What a mob! What an incredible night! My blood pressure was still spiking much too high and I was still trying to absorb it all, holding a broom in one hand and my head in the other, staring at the debris strewn all around me, when Jess came back in and finally locked the door behind her.
"My God, Mel!" she crooned from somewhere in her own dreamy never-never land. "Cole was simply out of this world amazing! I knew he had a great chest and a real work of art bum but let me tell you, I'd badly underestimated just how fantastic the rest of him is!"
"Jess ..." I groaned, in no way up for one of her hormonally induced blatherings – I had my own to contend with! But she was still glassy-eyed and didn't seem to hear.
"You know how most naked men kinda look like monkeys? With their business just swinging and flippity-flapping about? But he's just so well put together that ..."
"Jess!"I squealed, going into an even deeper state of shock and all but losing my voice.
"And the rhythm and the strength and the endurance and the control that man has! Like he could just go on and on and on all night long and well into the next day! Oh, Mel! You are soooo lucky! He –"
"– Could've had any and every woman in the room he wanted, any time, any way he wanted, and they all would've gladly stood in line for ..."
"JESSSSS!"I howled, desperately trying to get her to shut up.
"And the moves he has!" she went on, speaking right over me as if she couldn't hear. "Mmmm, mmmm, can that man ever move! Mel, the man's a gold mine! You have GOT to get him to perform again!"
"NEVER AGAIN!"I screamed at the top of my lungs, losing it altogether. "I will NOT exploit him like that!"
Jess recoiled as if I'd just slapped her and immediately began arguing. "Mel! What are you talking about? What exploit'!? Nobody forced him to do anything! He got up there all on his own and he was so bloody hot and uninhibited about it he was just mesmerizing!"
"Jess! No! You don't understand!" I argued back, trying very hard to control myself and refrain from sobbing. "I should've stopped him! I had no right letting him just –"
"Stopped him? But why? He wasn't ashamed, he wasn't embarrassed – not that he has anything at all to be ashamed or embarrassed about! – and he didn't have any problems with any of it. In fact, he seemed really happy about making all those women really happy. Mel! He was enjoying the whole thing! And it showed!"
"Oooooo, it showed all right ..." I moaned, realizing that the only thing it showed me was that I still don't have a clear handle on exactly what kind of being Cole is.
"Yeah! It sure did!" she giggled, completely missing my meaning.
And then I just snapped.
"Tell you what!"I snarled, becoming horribly mean and snide with her yet unable to stop myself. "You really think he should do it again? FINE! We'll just go ahead and schedule Cole for every Friday night and then we'll have our resident know-it-all party-girl Jess stripping for the guys every Saturday night – better yet, six nights a week – and we'll just turn this place into one of those T and A' joints and rake in the cash hand over fist! How does that grab you?"
Jess stared at me in wide-eyed shock. "Mel! That isn't fair!"
"Oh, really?" I sneered, still out of control. "What's not fair about it? If the tables had been turned and it was a female stripper who'd become a no-show for our male customers, you mean to say you wouldn't have gladly jumped right up there and taken it all off?"
"No! I wouldn't! I couldn't!" she stammered in a very small voice, her chin and lower lip quivering. I don't think I've ever seen poor Jess so hurt, so close to losing it to tears. "I know you think I'm really wild and all ... but I ... I'm really not ... and I just ... I couldn't. It's not something I could ever ..."
My anger abruptly evaporated and I was left feeling like a complete and total shit.
What kind of monster am I to be heaping blame on Jess for this and, to top it all off, verbally brutalizing her as well? Sure she couldn't put that dance tape on fast enough, but she doesn't have any idea who or what Cole really is or why he's here. She hasn't the vaguest notion of why I've allowed him to move in with me and become so much a part of my life – not that I'm so one hundred percent sure of all the particulars of these things, either! If anything, she thinks he's only using me like too many of my meaningless ex-boyfriends have.
All she really knows is what I've told her: that he's an undercover agent of some sort. And if she believes that to be true on any level at all, then she would surely believe his Forrest Gump' behavior is done only as an act, a put-on, a part of his cover identity, just as I've told her it is. It's never even crossed her mind that his apparent slowness' could really be his genuine innocence and ignorance of many of our human ways because she doesn't even have a clue that he isn't human and doesn't come from anywhere even close to being from around here.
I know perfectly well that she's only trying her darnest to help me keep the Watchfire afloat. When she saw Cole standing atop the bar all ready and willing to be the focus of the evening, she probably took it as a way for him to contribute his share and really help out in a meaningful way, so she applauded what he was doing and encouraged him along, seeing everything right in his actions!
No. If there's any blame to be assigned here for what Cole was allowed to do, then it's mine and mine alone. Just because Cole's an adult and was once married' – or whatever the Cirronian equivalent for it might be – even fathered a child, does not mean I had the right to allow him by default to do a striptease in front of a mob of total strangers just to save myself from the embarrassment and inconvenience of an admittedly awkward situation!
"Jess, please. I'm so sorry. Please forgive me," I whispered, so deeply ashamed of myself I could hardly speak. "I didn't really mean what I said. I didn't mean any of it. I had no right jumping all over you like that. It's just –"
"Bloody hell straight you didn't!"she angrily lashed back at me. "You got some sort of problem with what Cole did, then you work it out with him! And leave me out of it!"
"Yes. Of course," I demurred, knowing I fully deserved her angry response. "It's him I have to speak with. You're absolutely right."
Jess softened a little and gave me a tight, lopsided smile. "Gettin' kinda territorial about him, aren't you, Mel?"
I started to hotly deny it, then just shut up and nodded. It was easier that way, the path of least resistance.
"Thought so. And I think he's starting to feel the same way," she went on reflectively. "He had his choice of anyone, but it was you he wanted to dance with. No one else. Just you. And the way I've seen him look at you sometimes ..."
"The way he looks at me?" I had no idea what she was talking about!
"Yeah, well ..." she went on. "You may not have noticed, but I sure have. Like he's saying to himself, This just couldn't be happening!' And I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't've set you off by yammering about him like that. Okay?"
"No hard feelings, then?" I said, holding out my arms to her.
"Well, a little." She grinned, stepping into my embrace for a friendly make-up hug. "But I think we'll both get over it." She whirled away and grabbed a broom. "Now! Let me just start getting this place back to order and ..."
"Nope! Not tonight," I interrupted, snatching the broom away from her. "It's late and I think we're both over-tired, over-wrought and ..." I meaningfully raised a brow at her to play her little game. "... and over-stimulated." She laughed at that, sounding more like her usual self. The storm really had passed. "If you can get in about a half hour or so early tomorrow, both Cole and I will pitch in to return this place to a semblance of normalcy. Between the three of us, it shouldn't take very long."
"But, Mel! I promised you that –"
"No more arguments," I insisted as firmly as I could, going for the phone. "I'm calling you a cab and I want you to go home and get some sleep. It's been a long night and you've more than earned it."
"Uh huh. And you want to hurry upstairs and put all that over-stimulation to good use."
"Yes. Cole and I do have to ... talk," I absently replied while trying to steady my shaking hands enough to punch in the phone number. What I desperately wanted was to just be alone for a while.
"Sure. Talk," she slyly intimated. "Maybe the two of you will even get around to doing that."
"Jess, please. Don't start again," I begged as the taxi dispatcher came on the line.
"Shutting up," she grinned, making a zipping motion with her fingers across her lips.
The dispatcher had a cab dropping off a fare only a few blocks away at that very moment – there is a God! – so within minutes I was able to send Jess on her way and obtain the solitude I needed to try to restore my frazzled equilibrium.
Beginning with getting myself pleasantly marinated.
Turning off all but the low after-hours lights so I could better ignore the mess, I sat myself down at the bar with a glass and a bottle of tequila (not one of my favorites, but I know better than to mix my poisons) and tried to make some sense of it all.
So, okay!To begin with, it really wasn't hard to figure why Cole got up there in the first place. A month ago when I first found him he was so uncoordinated he was hardly able to walk. And because he didn't know what to call things and didn't know what most words mean, he couldn't even speak in complete, coherent sentences. I took him in, providing him with shelter and the continuing guidance he needs in order to navigate his way through the labyrinth of a human environment. I've clothed him, fed him, taught him the language and even instructed him on such basics as shaving and bathing and brushing and flossing his teeth.
Although I've never discussed the matter with him, he had to have been aware that I'm struggling with my finances and he probably realized that my taking him under my wing has been an added drain on my resources, even if he doesn't yet fully understand our monetary system. At one point I remember grumbling that, with his hearty appetite, my weekly grocery bill has tripled. Another time when I took him clothes shopping, I declined purchasing a gorgeous sueded silk shirt for him (even though he would've looked dynamite in it and for once he loved the feel of the fabric) because, even at 50% off, the damn thing still would've set me back $330.00! Anyway, I told him that I don't have that kind of money to spend on my own everyday clothes. Another time when he was going out he offered to drop some bills I'd written out checks for in the mailbox, but I told him that my account didn't yet have the funds to cover the amounts, so mailing them would have to wait.
On top of all that, he certainly had a very good idea of the sort of business the Watchfire was doing. Rarely had he ever seen more that two dozen patrons in the place at any given time, and very often it remained depressingly empty for hours, sometimes days, on end. And he'd surely overheard some of the discussions Jess and I were having over what we could do to remedy the situation.
So there he was, never having seen the bar anywhere near so mobbed before, knowing that the all-female crowd was specifically there to see the full monte', overhearing that the man I'd hired to do it wouldn't be coming, and then finally understanding what the term full monte' means.
As I said, the man is definitely not stupid. Of course I should've seen it coming!
I drained my glass and poured myself another two fingers, congratulating myself for having such eagle-eyed 20/20 hindsight.
Everything Cole sees and hears he tends to interpret straightforwardly, without the clouding of our human hang-ups and prejudices. To him, taking off his clothes, even in front of people, not only isn't any big deal, it's no kind of deal at all ...
I wonder ... Could this not only be because his species doesn't wear any clothing at all, but also because displaying sexuality is not something he considers immoral or indecent? After all, since Cirronians don't wear clothes, how can they not be displaying their sexuality in some fashion, if only to each other? If this is so, then wouldn't they take their sexuality and their sexual behavior simply as a matter of course? And just because Cole now has the body of a human doesn't mean that any of his Cirronian instincts and thinking patterns have changed in any way. So why, then, would he even think there's anything wrong with a sexual display?
For that matter, why do I?
Anyway, he knew that I'd hired someone to do it, so he probably figured that taking off his clothes, at least in that venue, was surely okay. It's clothes he doesn't find okay! So it isn't hard to understand how he might've seen it as an acceptable time to shuck them in an approved situation while salvaging the evening for the Watchfire and paying me back for some of what I've done for him all at one and the same time.
What isn't so easy to figure is why I feel so damn guilty about it. Why do I feel as though I should've at least made some sort of real effort to stop him? Granted he might not have really known what he was doing – human moral-wise, that is; from the way he was acting, I'm pretty sure he was understanding the sexual connotations – and granted I hadn't asked him to do it at all, but he obviously got a real charge out of making the place go completely crazy, so what reason would there be for my even wanting to put a stop to it other than my own misplaced embarrassment?
Cole isn't in any way mentally deficient or brain-damaged. He was perfectly capable of interstellar travel all on his own a distance of 100 light years to get to Earth. He made the trip to and from Roswell, New Mexico, completely on his own (although I did make the travel arrangements for him and have Sondra drive him to O'Hare). He hunts the streets of Chicago Tracking down alien fugitives. He's even been out on a date (such as it was). He makes his own decisions and runs his own life because he's an entirely competent and responsible adult who ...
Damn! Who the hell am I kidding here? I FAILED HIM!
Cole may be an adult, yet in some ways he's very much like a child because human culture, customs and learned responses are all new and strange to him and he's first being exposed to them, first learning what it means to be human – just as a child has to do.
What I did, in essence, was allow a man having the body modesty of a young child to strip off his clothes for the prurient enjoyment of an adult audience. And if that isn't failure, I don't know what is! Never mind what his Cirronian society may be like, in this society it's one thing to take off your clothes in a teasing manner in private when you're going to be intimate with someone, it's quite another thing altogether to remove them that way for money and in public!
If only I had explained human sexuality and the societal mores, rules and practices we have about it to him much earlier – certainly no later than by the time I'd given him his personal hygiene lessons and it was quite obvious he has all the proper parts and they're all in proper working order. Then if he'd decided that he wanted to expose himself like that ... then ... well ... it would've been fine. I guess. I wouldn't have a problem with it. Maybe. But for me to have taken such blatant advantage of his ignorance of the full scope of the situation by allowing him to do what he did was inexcusable!
Hell, I was hurt and humiliated for him those times when he walked around the place wearing only his briefs! But it was okay for him to do a full monte' strip in front of a mob of screaming women howling at him like a piece of raw meat just so I could trade one embarrassment for another and make some money off of him?
What the hell am I, anyway? A pimp?
I mean, certainly he wasn't harmed by what he did any physical way but someday soon enough, when he fully realizes exactly what I allowed him to do and why it's inappropriate in this society, he will surely feel I betrayed him if only because I chose not to stop him! How will he feel about me then? After all, if I was on his planet and he blithely allowed me to do something similar without providing me with the proper information to enable me to make an informed decision about my choice, how would I feel about him? And would I ever be able to trust him again?
Cole relies on me! He trusts me! He looks to me for help and guidance! He believes in me even more than I've ever been able to believe in myself! And I should be smacked senseless for betraying him like this. It was inexcusably wrong of me to allow him to do what he did and so horribly abuse that trust. He shouldn't have been up there stripping simply because he's totally unaware of the societal implications of it, not understanding it as something that most humans wouldn't ever do. Even the stripper I'd hired bowed out, for God's sake – and he was going to be paid for doing it!
If Vic had been the one who'd hopped up on the bar instead, wouldn't I have done absolutely everything in my power to stop him? Of course I would've! No question at all! So why didn't I do anything to stop Cole from ...
My brain abruptly stalled, the thought just hanging there unfinished in my head and leering at me, my mind simultaneously dancing around the implications yet shying away, afraid to confront it head on.
I hastily drained my glass and poured out yet another two fingers.
Oh, no ...Could it even be that there's some sort of a sick specie-ism (is there such a word?) type thing at the heart of this, an unacknowledged prejudice within me every bit as disgusting as bigotry or racism? Deep down in the sewer of my subconscious mind, do I even recognize Cole as being a person? Or do I think of him as being an alien creature and therefore as something less than human who doesn't really matter in the same sense that a real human matters?
Is that why I let him do it? Is that the real reason?
"Mel? Is everything okay?"
I started at the sound of Cole's voice behind me. I hadn't heard him come downstairs, hadn't even heard his approach. He can be spooky like that sometimes, moving silent as a shadow, without making the slightest sound at all. And I was afraid to turn around, too shaken, too horrified by the direction of my own inner thoughts to face him. More, I was half-afraid that he was still starkers, that he hadn't yet bothered to get dressed. Or hadn't remembered to. Wearing clothes was so far down on his list of priorities that it wouldn't be the first time, although I had to admit he was getting more contentious about it. I think that has more to do with the weather turning a little cooler than anything else.
"Why were you and Jess shouting at each other?" he went on, sounding very concerned about it. "Did she do something wrong?"
"No. She didn't do anything wrong," I assured him, not turning around and keeping my gaze firmly fixed on my glass. "It's just ... I lost my temper and she just happened to be there. I shouldn't have taken it out on her. But it's okay now. I apologized and we've patched it up."
He slid onto the barstool beside me and after a moment I dared a sidelong glance at him. He was fully dressed – in an old stained and faded University of Chicago sweatshirt with a baggy pair of chinos riding so low on his hips that it was obvious they were sized for a heavier man – and I felt some of my tensions ease up. He looked like his normal messy-haired self again, not like that heart-stopping other Cole' who'd been dancing up there, although his eyes did seem a bit brighter than usual. Hard to tell for sure in the bar's dim after-hours lights.
I made a mental note that the occasional purchased fill-in garment wasn't enough. Now that he seemed to be developing a tolerance for wearing clothes, within the next few weeks I would have to take him on the first of several serious shops for a wardrobe of real clothes that really fit.
"But you're upset because you think that I did something wrong," he said. It was a statement, not a question. Trust Cole not to beat about the bush.
For the umpteenth time I tried to get a clear mental fix on him. Cole just seems so sweet and gentle, so naively childlike, caring and giving in his manner, that he constantly throws me off. I keep forgetting that he's savvy enough, and tough enough, to have worked as a maximum security prison guard and must therefore be well aware of the cruelty and evil that the worst and most violent of sentient beings are capable of. More, he's a Tracker, an interstellar cop/detective/fugitive hunter, an alien who functions as part extra-sensory bloodhound, part data processor, part lifeforce Collection specialist, part I can't even begin to comprehend what. He can also be an extremely dangerous man in that he knows how to kick serious butt if and when he has to.
In spite of appearances, how can there truly be anything even remotely innocent or childlike about anyone who does all that? Answer: there isn't. As Jess' take on his Forrest Gump slowness', it's only an illusion. Cole's proven himself to have a brilliant mind and actually be highly intuitive, cunning and resourceful, but these things about him tend to fade into the background because he's so guileless, essentially a very easy-going, unobtrusive and natural soul, astonishingly devoid of ego or worldly artifice. But innocent? Childlike? Is anyone in law enforcement? No! I must try to keep that firmly in mind.
"Well, no. Not exactly," I hedged, not certain how or where to begin this discussion – or even if I was ready for it. But ready or not, here it was. "Only, well, um ... Well, there are some people who would equate stripping with prostitution and, um, I should've –"
"You hired a prostitute to do the full monte?"
"NO!"I defensively blurted out, before it had fully sunk in that there wasn't even a hint of reproval in Cole's tone, only curiosity. "At least, I don't think he's a prostitute ..." I went on more evenly. "Anyway, American society is more apt to regard a female stripper as being a prostitute than they would a male. And to be far more condemning of her if she is. Unfair as it is, the double standard is still alive and well in that regard and in many other ways. Um ... You do know what a prostitute is, don't you?"
"Yes. One who sells themselves for sex." He tilted his head at me, his expression one of curious amusement. "Why would you think I wouldn't know?"
"I ... I just wanted to be sure, is all." I felt myself coloring. I was so glad that the lights were dim.
"Or do you think I don't know what sex is?"
I couldn't be sure, but I think he was teasing me. In spite of him having had a family, for whatever reasons that was exactly what I'd thought – at least until I saw him work that crowd. But I wasn't about to admit it so I extemporized.
"No, of course not," I lied. "It's just, um, I would guess that sex and sexuality probably aren't the same for a being of light and energy as they would be for humans and so it would all be totally foreign to you and, um ..."
"No, they are unlikely to be the same and yes, the human way is foreign to me," he readily conceded. "But foreign is not the same as entirely unknown. Humans did not originate sex, Mel. It's a universal constant, in one form or another one of the primary drives among all species. Without it, life wouldn't continue into another generation."
Am I a complete moron or what? This is a guy who's better traveled than any modern human could ever hope to be, having been to hundreds of worlds in many dozens of solar systems. Of course he's been exposed to the sexual expressions of untold numbers of species and must have at least some knowledge and understanding of them, even if it's only an intellectual one! Hell, because he's even morphed himself into other lifeforms, he probably knows more about the subject than Masters and Johnson!
"Is it the same everywhere?" I asked in a bid to cover the embarrassment of my stupidity. "Two sexes and all?"
"Among higher lifeforms are hermaphroditic species as well as those which can change their sex and those which have several sexes," he told me, sounding much like one of my college professors. "But most have evolved with only two sexes, male and female, just as they are with humans and the Migarian species. The rituals, displays, stimulations, mechanics and techniques of mating may differ greatly among species, but the purpose is always identical: male uniting with female. Why do you ask?"
"Just curious," I blithely said, feeling myself blushing from the top of my scalp all the way down my throat and around the back of my neck. With difficulty I then forced my mind back to the real subject at hand. "Anyway, the thing here is, you have to be able to move through and mingle with human society without drawing undue attention to yourself. Right?"
Cole nodded but his eyes were beginning to sparkle with that same mischievous look they had when he'd asked me if I found the appearance of an Enixian to be unpleasant. I forged ahead anyway.
"So, irregardless of whether you personally care about human societal implications or not, you really need to learn exactly what the rules are in order to make better decisions and know when it is or isn't appropriate for you to bend or break those rules ... Understand so far?"
"Yes, Mel," he dutifully told me, but his eyes were becoming brighter and his amused smile was making me feel all flustered.
"Well, er, I'm afraid you've been, um, operating without my having provided you with all the proper information you need."
"Are you about to give me a lesson on the birds and the butterflies?"
"Bees. It's the birds and the bees,'" I automatically corrected, wondering where and when he'd picked up that quaint expression. Damn! He was definitely teasing me!
"The birds and the bees," he echoed, still watching me intently.
Those evicted butterflies were now taking up residence in my stomach and my ears felt like they were sizzling. I briefly wondered whether I'd had too much to drink or not enough, then quickly decided the hell with it and knocked back the rest of my tequila in a single gulp, not even tasting it.
"How many drinks have you had, Mel?" he asked as I poured myself another.
To be honest, I didn't know. All I did know is that I wasn't feeling it at all. "Humans wear clothes," I went on, pointedly ignoring his question. "Therefore, in human society, sexual displays are usually performed when we're fully clothed. If nudity were the norm for us, we would all be doing it in the nude. But it isn't the norm. So we don't. Um ... You do realize that a man's full monte' striptease is a very special and highly charged form of sexual display, don't you? For human females, I mean. That's why all those ladies were, um, becoming so ... excited."
"Yes, Mel," he affirmed, apparently struggling not to grin. "I've seen many such similar rituals and entertainments among other species before."
"Is that why you did it?"
"Yes, Mel." Now he truly was grinning. "I was enjoying it. The ladies were enjoying it. Where was the harm?"
"Yeah, well, I'm very happy you had such a good time," I mumbled, it dawning on me that it's probably impossible for him to feel exposed in any morphed form. The real Cole is Daggon, and Daggon wasn't the one stark naked and strutting around on full display, just this particular outer flesh he created and named Cole. "But you really shouldn't have done it."
"Why?" Oh, great. I'd lost him. He was giving me one of his patented huh?' looks.
"Because of what I said before," I patiently told him, "The whole American societal connotation stripping has with immorality and prostitution and –"
"American society thinks prostitution is bad?" he interrupted in genuine surprise.
"Your world doesn't?" I countered.
"Cirronian society is very different, Mel. It doesn't have any prostitution with either sex because there's no need. But the beings of many worlds do have such a need. Most do, actually. There's nothing immoral about it. And because prostitution fills that need, none think it to be bad."
"Okay. Makes sense to me," I said, both because it did and because I didn't want the conversation to go off on other tangents. "But, Cole, you have to understand. This isn't Cirronian or Migarian or anything else society. This is human society. And human society is full of hypocrisies and inconsistencies and often doesn't make much logical sense. The fact is, here in America much of human society prefers to deny these needs even exist. Or labels them as immoral. And prostitution is always thought to be bad. Many human societies think that way, in fact ..."
"Your world is very strange, Mel." Cole shook his head, apparently both amused and rather puzzled by the whole thing. "I don't understand. You hired a man to take off his clothes for your customers. And you say he isn't a prostitute and I know I'm not a prostitute and –"
"Yes. I did. And no, he isn't and of course you're not, either!" I broke in. "But all that's beside the point. Him taking off his clothes is a lot different than you doing it."
"Different? Different how?"
"It's just ... different, is all. He was hired for it. You weren't. You shouldn't have been doing it."
"I still don't understand. It was so much fun, Mel! It's been so long since I've danced, so long since I've felt so free, that I ..."
Knowing that I wasn't getting through to him, I held up a hand for silence and he complied almost immediately. Why would I think a Cirronian could understand, much less feel the illogic of American-style shame and embarrassment when even many Europeans don't? I'm not even sure that I understand it and I was born and raised here!
"Cole, this isn't about dancing," I began again, attempting to keep the frustration out of my tone and trying to figure out how best to put this. "Look at it this way. I don't know this guy and I have no feelings for him at all. Okay? Now, most guys are, er, so afraid of being thought ... um ... inadequate ... that they–"
"Um ... Yeah. Inadequate. As in not measuring up. Anyway, they –"
"Not measuring what up?"
"You know. Like, um, measuring? Measurement? SIZE?"
"I don't understand."
And he wasn't kidding! I know that totally bewildered, lost-in-the-forest look of his all too well!
"Cole! Just forget it! Just take my word for it that most men would rather take their chances tiptoeing through a minefield than face doing a full monte' strip in front of a room full of women! Okay? ... Now, where was I? ... Oh, yeah. ... But if this guy was confident enough or filled with enough delusions of grandeur –"
"Delusions of grandeur?"
His expression still clearly told me that I would have to supply additional information if I expected him to understand what I was talking about. I could feel myself turning beet-red all over again so I ignored him and just kept talking, hoping he'd finally get it if I did.
"– to do it for money regardless of what anyone thought about it or about him, I was perfectly willing to use him that way. But you, you're different. You, –"
"Yes! You're different because I know you and ... and ..."
I was fast becoming so upset and tongue-tied with Cole's interruptions and my own stupid embarrassment that I, of course, began to babble, all that tequila I'd consumed finally starting to kick in.
"Oh, God, Cole. There's no excuse for this. I'm so sorry ...
"Sorry for what, Mel?"
I just kept going, talking right over him.
"... This is my entire fault. I should've told you these things before so you could've been better prepared. And I should've at least taken responsibility and tried to stop you. I shouldn't have been so indecisive. I failed you by –"
"No, Mel. You could never fail me. It isn't in you."
Still, I didn't hear him.
"– not doing anything and just standing there like an idiot and I ... I don't ever want to feel like I'm using you or taking advantage of the faith and trust you've placed in me because ..."
As I was talking I was reaching to take another sip of my drink to stall for time and line up my thoughts, but Cole plucked my glass away, moving it beyond my grasp.
"You've had enough," he softly admonished.
"It's just I ..." I finally fell silent as his hand then began to gently caress the base of my throat. I still don't know why or how a Cirronian gesture like that should be so strangely calming, but it is. The more I experience it, the more I seem to appreciate it and the more I seem to want to experience it again.
I closed my eyes and allowed myself to sink into the soothing sensation. What was so terrible that I getting myself all worked up about? So I didn't stop him. Big deal! Cole certainly understood enough to have known what he was doing. He'd enjoyed himself, and the audience had enjoyed it. Did I feel I had to give him a complex about it? As long as his actions don't get him incarcerated, why should he care about our all screwed up and forever changing societal mores? And even if it had been Vic who'd gotten up there instead – not that Vic or any other man I've ever known would've ever gotten up there – I probably would've behaved the exact same way.
Only one thing still really bothered me, though. Two things, actually.
"No matter how well explained," Cole was quietly saying, "There is much about human behavior I'll never fully understand because I don't have the proper grounding and reference points. There is no fault here and you cannot blame yourself for my natural ignorance. Understand?"
I nodded slightly, not enough to disturb the blissful magic of his hand. "But, Cole ... I really hated how all those women were howling and gaping at you like that. It made my skin crawl. To them you were just a sex-object, not even human."
"I'm not human. I'm Cirronian."
"I know but ... From what I know about you, and from what I know about Cirronians, they made me feel ashamed that I'm human. I really care what people think about you because I –"
"I don't care what other humans think of me, Mel, so there's no reason for shame on my account," he said, even quieter than before. "They don't even know me. I only care what you think."
"It was still a bad idea. If only because you attracted too much attention to yourself."
"Yes, this is true," he sighed. "And because you don't want me to, I won't do it again. That's the only reason I really need."
"Good. I really don't want to have to witness anything like that again."
"I don't please you, Mel?" he questioned. His expression was so troubled, his tone so earnest that it occurred to me he was still trying to determine if I like him – and not just for his mind or his personality. He wanted to know if I found his entire human package to be pleasing as well. We were back to square one, as when he'd asked me if I was hot for him.
Be honest with him, I told myself. But detached. Definitely try to maintain a degree of detachment. Right. That hasn't been an easy thing for me to be with him and it's becoming harder all the time.
I've been spending most of the time since Cole and I met trying to ignore his appearance, concentrating instead on the considerable qualities of the soul within. Since I'm not the type to be easily swayed by the superficial, I think I've managed to do a very credible job of it. But his interior beauty has so far proven to be even more astonishing than that of his exterior so it hasn't done damn a thing to lessen my attraction to him. If anything, it's only served to magnify it.
The fact is, he's driving me so crazy that he's even started to replace Rod in my dreams. There've been times I've wished he looked like an Enixian because maybe then I wouldn't feel so drawn to him.
"Yes, you do please me," I told him. "Very much so. I've only known you a few weeks, Cole, but already I think you're the most interesting, most amazing man I've ever met." It was all entirely true yet more than I'd meant to say, so I felt a bit awkward.
"Thank you. I ... I'm honored you think so."
It was difficult for me to read him, but he seemed puzzled by something.
"Is ... Is something wrong?" I asked.
His hand dropped away as he stood up and I felt a pang of loss.
He shook his head. "Remember what I just said about proper grounding and reference points? This is something I don't think you would be able to understand."
"Oh." I yawned behind my hand. "It works two ways, huh?"
"Yes, Mel. It does. But it's very late and you're tired. Humans need their rest cycles. You should go to bed."
"Yeah, you're right," I agreed, standing up myself. I was about to bid him good night when I realized that he'd just picked up one of the brooms. "What are you doing?"
"I don't sleep, Mel. I thought I'd clean up down here so you'd be able to sleep a little longer."
"That's very sweet of you, but you really don't have–"
"I want to, Mel. Would that be okay?"
I don't know why, but I was deeply touched by that simple gesture. "You truly are a most amazing man, Cole. Thank you. And I don't mean just for doing this. I mean thank you for ... everything."
"You're welcome, Mel. Good night."
"Good night, Cole."
I felt Cole's eyes on my back as I headed for the stairwell. One thing is for sure: if I don't start resuming my life real soon, I'm going to lose all proper perspective about him.