by Noni Bird
Novel in progress
In the King Cole lounge at the St. Regis on East 55th Street, Paul went up to Stephen Stern standing next to the bar. The two men shook hands and then took seats at one of the small glass cocktail tables for two.
“I took a chance you’d be back by now. How did it go?” Steve asked.
Paul indulged him in a smile. “You caught me just in time. I was about to change and get into bed.” He’d only gotten as far as taking off his jacket and tie. It was almost eleven, and he’d had a busy day. “I had an emergency case at the hospital before I left Philly this afternoon. I’m beat.”
“So this evening didn't go well? I guess not, if you’re going to bed by yourself, huh?”
Paul looked at him askance. “We’re talking about your sister, right?”
Steve laughed. “Hey, it’s Isabel, she’s fair game! Seriously, what happened?”
Paul chuckled. “Everything was fine. The restaurant was a hit…thanks.”
“There weren’t any tears from her?”
“I didn't say that! It’s Isabel, remember? She's emotional and complicated. But she held it together. You could have warned me – she hasn’t changed in thirty years, she's still stunning! I won’t lie to you, I wanted her - right there on the table, if necessary,” Paul joked.
The waiter came over.
“What are you having?” Steve asked Paul.
“Johnny Walker Black on the rocks.”
“Make it two,” Steve told the waiter.
Steve gave Paul a conspiratorial look. “Seriously, have you ever done it on the table? You know, the operating table.”
Paul threw his head back. “Jeezus, Steve!”
“No, really, come on…”
“No way! I’m only there to operate. Twenty years ago, as a resident, when my dick had a brain of its own and I didn’t have to be awake…maybe…I don’t remember now.”
Steve smiled knowingly. “I hear ya! So what’s new? It’s really great to see you. I’m glad you called me yesterday. I’ve been wanting to get together since you got back from Paris with my father…just you, me and Felix.”
Paul nodded. Steve had brought it up yesterday too.
When the drinks came Paul announced, “I’m looking to buy a place in town."
Steve’s brows went way up. “Seriously? Are you leaving Penn?”
“Yup, I resigned last week. The place has been good to me, but I need a change. I’m tired of Philly. ”
“Hell, you’ve got nothing to apologize for! Look how much you’ve done for that place. You don’t need those headaches and the bullshit from a faculty of overblown egos anyway.”
Paul leaned back in the chair with an ankle across his knee. “That’s right. In June I’m being replaced with some other overblown ego."
Steve toasted him. "Mazel tov!”
After a minute, Steve turned to Paul and asked, “So what about Isabel, hmm? She still wanna marry you?”
“I don't know...I gave her a dose of chemo last night," Paul chuckled. The sting of the whiskey felt good going down his throat.
“You asshole!” Steve punched him lightly on the arm, laughing. Then, in a quieter voice that conveyed real concern, he asked, “She didn’t buy it, did she?”
"Maybe...” Paul swirled the dark gold liquid around in his glass and stared at it.
“Isabel adores you…you’d have to excise her brain to change that!”
“We’ll see. I’m taking her with Joanna and me to the top of the new World Trade Center tomorrow.”
“Oh yeah?” This seemed to restore Steve’s hopes.
“I expect her to say yes, anyway. She said she’d sleep on it. “
“What is?” Paul asked.
“Thirty years later and you just pick up where you left off, still fighting!”
“Did I say that?”
“You don’t have to. I had to pull some strings and get Stallings involved to get her there tonight.”
Paul frowned. Who’s he talking about?
“Henry Stallings, my mother’s partner at Roth…Isabel’s now,” Steve explained.
“The man who interviewed Joanna...she told me.”
“I’m sure you’ll meet him sooner or later."
“I may have met him a long time ago. What did he do?”
“He convinced her she didn’t have to sleep with you.”
“That’s funny.” She wanted to.
Paul looked over at the Old King Cole painted mural behind the bar and got pensive. “I got the feeling Isabel didn’t know you and I were friendly, Steve.”
“I never told her, exactly. She was married back then. For that matter, so were you.”
There was an awkward silence while the two men seemed to size each other up. “What happened?” Steve asked first.
“Shirley found someone who loved her more.”
Steve shook his head. “Damn. Sorry to hear that. Some women are never satisfied.”
"There's always someone better out there." Paul's voice was as flat as this platitude.
"Only someone who thinks there is." Steve offered.
Paul didn't argue. "What about you?" he asked, just to be polite.
Steve groaned. "Turned out Judy has a mental illness - Borderline Personality Disorder. One day it was heaven on earth and the next day I was the scum of the earth." He shook his head then picked up his glass.
"Shit, that's worse than my story. I hope she's in therapy."
"For the rest of her life, probably," Steve muttered. Then he set his glass down heavily on the table and declared, "Any woman who'd leave a guy like you is fucking nuts too. I don't blame Isabel for wanting you."
“I tried to tell her I'm really an asshole."
Steve huffed. “I'll bet you did! But you're not fooling her. You're not getting away from her this time, either. If you ask me, your single life is about to meet its demise." He sat back in his seat with a look of satisfaction and said, "I’m dating a new woman - thirty-three - a lingerie model.”
“Mmm! Does she have a sister? Paul joked.
“Fuck no! I’m the one with the sister, you asshole!” Steve scolded him with another jab to the arm. “She's just a playmate – they all are now. I’m not remarrying. I like my life just as it is now.”
“I hear you.” I've said that myself.
“How about another?” Steve asked, pointing to Paul's empty glass.
“No, I’m good, thanks.”
“OK, me too.” Steve went up to the bar and paid. Paul pulled out his phone. No messages.
“I’ll call you with the number of my realtor tomorrow,” Steve said when he came back to the table to get his coat.
They walked into the lobby from the bar. Steve turned to Paul. “Say hi to my sister for me.”
“Will do.” They shook hands and exchanged a male hug. Paul watched the heavy front door revolve when Steve left the building to return to his home in the Financial District.
Back in his hotel room, Paul got undressed. It was after midnight. Isabel was only five blocks away. She’s probably asleep.
Outside the city was still wide awake. He kept the windows uncovered – for a night light – and slid under the sheets of a well-appointed and comfortable bed that had been turned down by room service.
He pictured Isabel in a similar pose in her bed, looking up at the ceiling. Is she thinking of me?
He didn’t wonder for long before he fell asleep.
Paul slept in late the next morning and ordered breakfast in the room. By the time he got out of the shower and shaved, it was already ten o’clock and time to call Isabel.
“Hey, good morning, Paul!” she greeted him.
So far so good. “Good morning, Isabel. How’d you sleep last night?”
“Fine...” Isabel elongated the word until it sounded like, "Why, who's asking?" But she only asked, “Are you feeling rested?”
He was indeed. "Like a new man," he claimed. For a brief moment he considered changing the plans. After all, he had a late checkout scheduled. But he opted not to push his luck. "Are you in the mood to see the city from 102 storeys up?” He held his breath.
“Sure!” She convinced him.
“Good!” He exhaled. “Can I pick you up in an hour, then? We're reserved for eleven-thirty.
She offered to walk over instead.
“Make it thirty minutes then,” he decided in a flash.
Paul called Joanna to tell her to go online and buy another priority reserve ticket. "Isabel is joining us," he told her.
Joanna reacted as he expected. “Isabel? Wow...that’s wonderful!" She paused. "I’m not all dressed up, though.”
“We're just sightseeing, honey. See you soon. Don’t forget the ticket....we don’t want to wait in line.”
“OK, Dad. I’m on it,” Joanna promised.
Paul put on a pullover sweater and pair of corduroy pants. As he dressed, he repeated the conversation with Isabel in his head and tried to picture what she would wear on her walk over. Had he told her where he was staying? He couldn't remember now! He picked up the phone to call her, but she had beat him to it.
Without preamble he launched an urgent apology. "I'm sorry! I forgot to tell you..."
“I’m here!” Isabel interrupted him.
Already? She must have jogged! More nervous now, Paul rummaged through his suitcase to find socks, then slipped into a pair of soft loafers. He checked his look in the mirror, then left the room and followed the hall to the elevator while taking deep breaths.
Down in the lobby, Paul spotted Isabel on a sofa looking entranced by the ceiling high above her which was painted in a mural of blue skies and white clouds.
With a surety he couldn't yet trust this morning, he went up to Isabel and kissed her on both of her cold, red cheeks. He hoped his words and smile conveyed the warm affection he felt for her when he quipped, “You look very cute.”
She was wearing skinny jeans and a pair of running shoes. Her thigh-length white parka had deep pockets and a fake fur collar, and she wore a wide pink knitted headband that covered her ears and held back her shoulder-length hair. She looked like a teenager.
Paul took her hand. “Let’s go upstairs and I’ll show you the room. You’ll be impressed." Am I being too obvious?
They rode together to the fifth floor. Paul only half listened as Isabel chattered about not having stayed at any of the grand hotels in New York because her family lived there; he was busy guessing what her reaction might be to more than just the room itself.
Upon entering, Isabel's eyes went first to the chandelier hanging from the high ceiling. Paul watched as she surveyed the large room with obvious delight and admiration for the decorative woodwork and plum color of the wallpaper and headboard, which was topped with an upholstered soffit. He noticed how her eyes lingered on the prominent bed, left unmade from the night before.
The room had two upholstered chairs in a shade of light gray that matched the wool carpeting. Without prompting, Isabel took off her jacket and laid it across one of the chairs.
Paul felt his confidence build. He came up behind Isabel and rested his hands on her shoulders, while bending slightly to bury his face in her hair. "You smell wonderful," he murmured. He proceeded to remove her headband while he planted little kisses on her neck. Then he ran his hands up and along her scalp, probing her skull with his fingers. She responded with a satisfied purr. He used to do this for her back in the old days to relax her, but since then had had many more occasions with his patients instead.
When Paul turned her around, Isabel held up her arms for him, like a child. He pulled off her turtleneck sweater and felt her body heat escape. Behind her back he unfastened her bra and tossed it on top of her jacket. Isabel wriggled out of her stretch jeans while Paul watched, fascinated. His eager hands cupped her slender hips and buttocks and traveled down her shapely legs to her slim ankles, where she stepped out of her panties. He began to shed the clothes he'd put on only a few minutes earlier, while Isabel watched from under the sheets; her modesty at age fifty was endearing.
When he got into bed next to her, she warned him in a breathy voice, "It’s been a while for me.”
“For me too,” he murmured back. I can't remember the last time!
He propped himself up on one elbow to look down at her as he moved the sheet away from her body. His hand went over her warm skin, beginning at her throat, over her breasts and down to her stomach, where he twirled his index finger inside her navel and then kissed her there. When his hand went between her thighs, Isabel gasped and shivered.
Paul coaxed her gently with no more than a whisper. “Spread your legs, Isabel.” She’s eighteen all over again.
She did. He met her eyes in a brief prelude to what was surely coming next.
At eighteen, they were first-time lovers. By age twenty, they knew each other's likes and dislikes.The familiarity of Isabel's limbs and curves and her unmistakable scent brought their lovemaking back to his mind now. He knew he had satisfied her some minutes later when he felt her strong spasms and heard her unmistakable cries of pleasure. His erection was pressing ever harder against her thigh meanwhile.
He was surprised when Isabel climbed on top of him then and expertly guided him into herself. She rode him in a steady rhythm while he was transported back in time, as excited as a teenager again. He marveled at her body, how firm and supple and seemingly perfect it was, especially for his own, which thankfully had not changed so very much since he'd last bared it for her. They were made for each other physically, he couldn't deny it. He knew Isabel was rediscovering this too, when he saw her with her eyes closed tight, and felt her arms pressing his chest and arms deeper into the bed. She was reclaiming him, telling him he was hers, wasn't she? At the same time, he felt her utter and unconditional desire to please him. His thoughts of Isabel, together with the sensation of being inside of her warm body, brought him to an electrifying climax. He'd barely caught his breath before she took it away again, planting erotic kisses all over the body she'd just possessed. The heat of her lips alternated with the cool breeze from her hair that she swished against his skin. No, she’s not eighteen anymore.
Now they lay there side by side, her hand in his, looking up at the chandelier while natural sunlight poured into the room.
After a few minutes, Paul turned to her. “I apologize for last night, Isabel. I know I disappointed you.” He stroked her arm. She had her eyes closed. Did she fall asleep?
But she opened her eyes then and spoke to the ceiling. “It's OK, Steve told me you were just tired."
He caught his breath, and his hand stopped moving. His fingers tightened on Isabel's arm. She turned around to look into his eyes, and gave him a knowing smile.
I should have known! The Sterns stick together like glue.
"He was right, Isabel," was all he could say.