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THE MEETING

David Bruce Bozarth

Victoria Malin sighed as her six year old son tugged on her hand for the hundredth time. With exasperated tenderness she looked down at the whining child, a face framed with glorious brown curls which endeared the child to all who saw him.

How anyone so cherubic could be such a pain—Victoria censored her thoughts with a mental shrug. Andy was part of her life and she loved her child very much; though sometimes more than the present.

"What is it, Andy?" she peevishly asked.

"Can I have an ice cream cone?" His tiny index finger pointed to the highly visible concession stand near the center of the mall.

Margaret usually kept the boy while she and Edna made the rounds once a week, but she had called, canceling at the last minute. Andy could be an annoyance on shopping tours, at least Edna Thompson thought so.

"Let the boy have one," the portly, middle-aged woman urged. "Might calm him down.

Her condescending tone made Victoria Malin wonder why she continued accompanying Edna on these futile and expensive excursions. Despite everything else, Adam was a good provider. There were no real wants in her or Andy's lives. Therefore, she had no reason to waste time running all over town looking at things she had no intention of buying.

"Let Andy have one, Vicki." Edna used the hated nickname. "I think I'd like one myself." Mrs. Thompson led the way to the concession.

Andy dragged his perspiring mother behind him as he took "Aunt Edna's" words as a sign of approval. Victoria found herself ordering three cones to prevent an unpleasant scene with her son and, as usual, paying for them. Victoria Malin had long since resigned herself to the depletion of her pocketbook when it came to the purchase of food during these weekly outings.

Edna Thompson strictly adhered to her theoretical diet. A plump woman, though not overly obese, Edna had never broken her promise to her husband: she would not buy food when she was out shopping. She accorded that honor to Victoria; thereby allowing her to sample the various culinary delights without the guilt of lying to her husband. After all, she never bought anything edible.

The combination of summer heat and the need to observe Andy's enthusiastic attacks on his cone were the ingredients of disaster: Victoria softly cursed when her cone inevitably dripped on her favorite blouse. Her napkin provided with the cone was already saturated and a quick search through her purse turned up nothing suitable to reduce the impending damage to the fabric.

"Watch Andy, Edna," Victoria distractedly tossed the remainder of her ice cream into a nearby receptacle. "I've got to do something about this now—"

"Certainly, Vicki," Edna sighed. "Andy and I will look through some windows until you get back."

The public rest room was deserted at this early hour. Victoria quickly attended her blouse then dampened a paper towel, wrapped inside a dry one, in anticipation of Andy's needs. In her hurry to get back, her attention was elsewhere, causing her to collide with a tall, mustached man of her own age in the hallway. She became overbalanced and his strong hands gripped her shoulders.

"Randy—Mr. Kichols! I'm sorry, I—"

"Never imagined I'd run into you here, Victoria," the man's easy smile was warm with recognition. It was obvious to them both he held her erect longer than necessary before releasing her.

Victoria was slightly breathless. "Clumsy of me—I guess that's why I never became a good dancer."

Randy Kichols' smile broadened. He stepped back, looking the flushed woman over with a nod of appreciation. "You're looking good, Victoria. How long has it been? Two—three years?"

"About that," she replied, her heartbeat slowing from the unexpected accident—and the meeting. "Two years, I think."

There was a moment of appraisal. He saw a fine looking woman of thirty-six, good health, wearing nice clothes. She compared the figure before her with her memory of that same wiry build when she'd been one of Randy Kichols' dance students. There seemed to be more frown lines, but they added character to his already handsome face.

"From the way you look, Victoria," Randy complimented, "you must still be dancing."

"Not really," she laughed. "I'm very into motherhood at the moment. Adam is so busy now we don't have the chance to get out as often..."

The subtle change in the woman's manner, from bubbly to barren was not lost on the alert man. "I know how demanding that can be. Gwen and I went though the same thing—only she couldn't handle it."

His bitterness was obvious to Victoria. She started down the hall with Kichols at her side. "How is Gwen?"

Randy dismissed the question with a shrug of his shoulders. "We're divorced." With a snort of disgust he added: "I don't even teach dance anymore. I work down at Gillies here in the mall. Real exciting stuff, huh?"

Victoria slowed down, forcing Randy to follow suit or leave her behind. "I'm sorry to hear that. You were a good teacher."

"Thanks—I might start up again some place else—" he was reluctant to continue on that subject and abruptly changed directions. "How about you? Still trying to make a go at real estate?"

"Gave it up. Too many people in the game. Get a customer all set on a property and then find out at the last minute its been sold out from under you, or the prospect has gone to another agent. Adam couldn't hack all the phone calls and I wasn't really happy with the odd hours."

"Completely understandable. How is Andy? Last I heard he was about so big—" Randy formed his hands into a cup suitable for toy poodles "—and rowdy and loud."

"He's still rowdy and loud," Victoria laughed, "just in a bigger package."

"Good, that's what kids are supposed to do—grow!" Randy deftly slipped his hand under her arm and led the way out of the hall. "How about lunch? I know it's a bit early, but we could..."

"I don't think so, Randy. I'm here with a friend and she's watching Andy right now. I'm sure she's wondering what's happened to me."

Kichols was nonplused. "Bring 'em on," he grinned. "My treat."

Victoria walked silently for a moment, then smiled with decision. "Sure, why not? Give Edna something to gossip about for the next few weeks."

"That's the spirit!" Randy began, then saw something else underlying the woman's words. "Trouble at home? Listen, I don't want to—"

"It's not what you think," Victoria cut him off. "I was being catty. Edna's a busy body, that's all. We'd love to have lunch with you. When do you have to be back to work?"

"When I get there," he almost laughed. "Things get slow this time of year. Sure this won't cause any problems?"

"No," she honestly replied, "but I don't care. Let's find them."

Down the center of the open air mall was a well-tended garden with carefully trimmed trees that created a rustic, almost rural look. The sidewalks were pleasant with cooling shade while extensive beds of day lilies and roses glowed in the summer sun. Victoria's shoulder brushed against Randy's as they strolled down the sidewalk.

"It's nice here," she said. "It reminds me of the time you and I—" with a sudden blush she stopped in mid-sentence.

"—went to the park after dance class," he finished. "That was a beautiful day, Victoria."

Mrs. Malin nodded. "I almost wish I'd had the nerve—" She turned a wistful smile towards the attentive man. "It was a wonderful day." A moment later Victoria asked: "Can we just have lunch and not talk of other things?"

"Scared?" he asked.

"I don't know—a little. You always were a good listener and I told you things I've never told another person. I was so desperate for a friend and there you were."

"I'm still here, Victoria." His voice was calm, but his eyes betrayed him.

Victoria shook her head. "We've been through this before, Randy. I can't—"

There was a sad, gentle smile of understanding on his face. "I know."

Victoria's response was a shy touch on his arm. "I've never forgotten your kindness in listening to the ravings of a madwoman."

"You're not insane, never have been," he assured her. "What about me? You did a lot of listening yourself."

They looked quite natural walking together. The only unusual thing about the couple was that very fact; a man and woman in a place predominately visited by housewives and children. Neither looked at the other, but from the pace of the walk, the close proximity of their bodies, their awareness of each was obvious.

Victoria stopped under the shade of an old oak. She scanned the mall. "I haven't seen Andy or Edna yet. Do you suppose they might be on the other side of the mall?"

"Possibly, but more than likely your friend stepped into a store to look at something. If you're really worried, I can have them paged over the public address."

Victoria made a negative gesture. "Let's sit on the bench and wait a few minutes for them to appear. It shouldn't be long. Edna's attention span is shorter than Andy's." She giggled at the comparison. She almost felt guilty for putting Edna Thompson down, then thought better of it: the truth is the truth.

She put her words into action, sitting on the rough plank bench under the tree. Randy was pleased with the suggestion, stretching his long legs and leaning back. Kichols laced fingers behind his head, idly staring at the few passerbys.

"Feels good to get off the old feet for a while," he said with amusement. "Crazy when you think of it: a professional dancer who gets tired of standing all day."

"You don't look that out of shape to me," Victoria chuckled. Indeed, Randy Kichols was tall, lean, and handsomely built. With a slight frown of puzzlement she asked: "Why'd you quit? Teaching I mean."

"Smart lady," Kichols replied. "The teacher doesn't have to dance does he? Well, I think you know the answer to that. Gwen's accusations, before and after the divorce, made me sound footloose and fancy free. Some of the ladies started hitting on me and I've never been that kind of guy. Got so bad a couple of husbands dropped by to pay me a visit. You know, I always made it a practice to keep my hands to myself. I goofed only once," he looked at Victoria meaningfully, "and even then, I fell flat on my face."

Victoria's face burned. She lowered her eyes. "I know it seemed like I was leading you on, but I—"

His hand gently closed over hers, lying in her lap. The quiet gesture stopped her recriminations. "There's no one to blame, Victoria. We were both a little lost and lonesome. At any rate," he added with a wry grin, "nothing happened."

"Nothing?" she turned her face away. "Gwen divorced you because of me."

"What?" his hand tightened on hers. "Whatever gave you that idea?"

"My friend was in class the day Gwen came in, accusing you of seeing another woman during the day. Unless you were taking other students to lunch then it had to be me. I've felt so guilty about it."

"Don't," he said firmly. "Gwen and I were on the outs long before I ever knew you. You had nothing to do with my divorce, and everything to do with keeping me sane through those bad times. I knew you were terrified of having a relationship with me, but I couldn't stop myself from asking. You turned me down. That was the end of it—except for those hours of pleasant conversations which I've treasured."

Victoria raised her eyes to his, her throat tight, her heart racing. "I still think about you, too. I still want to do what I didn't have the courage to do then. You were the friend and companion Adam's never been for me. Yes—I was scared because I think I love you."

Kichols sat up, though he did not release her hand. He felt a tightness in his chest as her words consumed him, but he was afraid to say anything.

Victoria sensed his uncertainty. "You don't know how many times I've picked up the phone to call you, Randy."

"I was sure I'd driven you away. I—"

"Please stop," Victoria begged. "I'm already too confused to take on more. Adam's got other women—God that hurts!—and it's all I can do to keep from going crazy. There's nothing left between us except Andy and that's getting worse. The boy can sense the hostility between us. Since I found out what Adam has been doing I've known exactly what Gwen must have felt when she thought you were having it off. Did she know it was me?"

"But we didn't do anything!" he cried.

"We thought about it. That's enough. Did she know?"

"No," he growled. "Gwen didn't know squat. She had suspicions but in reality our marriage was long over before she decided to use infidelity as her grounds for divorce. In a way she was right—I did screw up once which made me feel so guilty I couldn't work for a week. I was insane to ask you. I'm so damn glad you had the sense to turn me down."

"But I didn't—I haven't-" Victoria's admission silenced the man. "I said 'no' when my heart shouted 'yes'. I've been hurting ever since. Does that make any sense?"

Randy Kichols stared at the people on the sidewalk before he answered. "More than you know. Before Gwen and I split I knew I was in love with you, but I never called because I thought I'd already ruined everything. I knew you were hurt."

"I'm still hurting, Randy." Her voice was soft, almost inaudible.

Kichols bowed his head. "Sorry—"

Victoria snorted with nervous laughter. "They say love is never having to say you're sorry."

"Whoever came up with that line is full of you-know-what." Randy let go of her hand, leaning forward, elbows on bent knees. He looked down at the sidewalk between his boots. "Love is pain, total consumption, terrifying commitments—I think I'd rather fight a war than be in love."

"Do you regret loving me?"

"Not for a moment!" he said, staring into her eyes. "But I don't want to cause you any more pain. That's why I haven't called—"

"I wish you had!" Victoria gripped his arm. "Damn it, I might have gotten out of this before it got so ugly!"

"What? You and me, or you and Adam?"

"It was never ugly with you, Randy."

"Then what are you waiting for? No one is forcing you to stay." There was a whisper of hope in his words; hope which was quickly suppressed for lack of certainty.

"No one but myself and Andy," she replied with harsh bitterness. "I'm scared, Randy. I'm so scared."

"You'll have to face that fear, Victoria, or you'll never know peace. I can't make the decision for you and I wouldn't even try, but if you need a friend, someone to talk to, I'll be here for you."

She looked sharply at him, evaluating his offer. He sensed her suspicions. "I said talk," he leaned back against the bench rest, "not have sex. I won't lie to you, I'd love to get you in the sack, but it doesn't have to be that way for friends."

"I don't know what to do," she felt lost, confused.

In reply Randy reached inside his jacket and pulled out a card. On the back he quickly scribbled a phone number then gave the business card to her. Victoria stared at it in her trembling hands.

"I'm not hitting on you, Victoria," he said. "Just in case you need a willing listener." Then, as if giving a lie to his words, he leaned toward her; kissing her cheek with the lightest of touch. Jumping to his feet, he looked down at the woman.

"We better skip lunch, Victoria. Some other time? I'd like that—on your terms."

Victoria started to give the card back, to refuse, but something stopped her. She carefully put the card inside her purse. "Perhaps we shall, Randy," she replied with a timid smile. "

"Great!" he looked at his watch, merely a gesture to make the parting easier. "I've got to run. Give me a call. Take care of yourself, Victoria."

Mrs. Malin watched the tall man weave among the crowd until he disappeared from view. She leaned back, clutching her purse to her breast. Her eyes focused on a horizon beyond the confines of the mall. She was still sitting that way when Adam hugged her with energetic clumsiness.

"Mama!" Andy buried his face into the thick mass of her hair. "We thought you were lost!"

Victoria hugged her child. She looked over his small shoulder to the frowning face of Edna Thompson. "Where have you been, Vicki?" the huffy woman demanded. "You know how difficult Andy can be when you're not around."

"Andy difficult?" Mrs. Malin dismissed the statement by kissing her son until he giggled. "He's a little angel," she declared, "and he's entitled to worry about his mother the way she worries about him." She glared at Edna Thompson. "By the way, dear, you owe me seventy-five cents for the ice cream cone."

Before the flustered woman could respond to this new Victoria Malin, Andy tugged at his mother's blouse. "Were you lost, Mama?"

Victoria squeezed him tightly, a faint smile on her lips. "Perhaps I was, Andy, but not now!"