Clair returned a few minutes later wearing jeans, a long pullover blue sweater, and gym shoes. She also brought my meal, which I found very tasty. After I'd finished eating she handed me the bill with a blank space for the tip. I wrote in ten dollars, a little more than a customary amount, but then, she was an attractive woman. She took my credit card and went in back. She returned with the invoice for me to sign and my card.
"Ohio?" she asked, guessing the card was issued by a northeastern Ohio bank and sliding my card back to me..
"Have you ever heard of Willoughby Castle?" she asked, sitting down across from me.
"I think I saw a report about it last year," I replied. "Supposedly haunted, now headquarters of some ... er ... cult or something."
"Much more than that," she insisted. "A reconstruction of an ancient initiation group. Archibald McIntyre, who built it, was the grandson of a Scottish laird who came to the colonies very much against his will. He made his fortune with a tobacco plantation in North Carolina, but dislikes the number of Scotsmen in the South."
It suddenly occurred to me the resemblance between the white on blue Scottish flag and the Confederate Battle Flag. So the plantation system was simply the Scottish clan system transplanted?
"He moved to Connecticut," she continued, "which is noted for its tobacco, cigar wrappers in particular. His son fought for the Connecticut Militia during that whole 1776 unpleasantness, and moved to Ohio in 1815. Finally, old Archie was born in 1820 and added to his family fortune by investing in railroads, steel mills, and firearms manufacturers."
"Living the American dream," I remarked.
"And better off than most," she said. "In 1880 he built his dream house, which he called a castle due to the battlements on the balconies. On a business trip to England he started talking to British occultists -- possibly dreading his impending mortality. Being a compulsive note-taker he returned to his castle with a pile of half-thought-out initiation rites."
An interesting story, greatly enhanced by her gently animated breasts. "Sounds like you've done your homework," I said. "By the way," I said, in a gesture I should have made earlier on, "I'm Luke Barkowski."
"Clair Renee Forsche," she replied, chuckling, probably realizing my gaze was a good deal lower than her eyes.
"From around here?" I asked, immediately regretting the drift to small talk.
"Montreal," she said. "Not Quebecois, mind you, my grandparents were Alsatian. Left France one of the many times it was healthier to get out."
"Alsatian ? I said, considering the name and a piece of canine trivia I picked up somewhere.. "Ger..."
"Not a German Shepherd," she said, playfully annoyed. "I've heard all the jokes. Hitler and his Alsatian bitch and all that. But what's a Barkowski?"
"A mutt," I replied, adding to the joke. "Polish, German, Italian, probably some Cherokee."
"I'm not exactly a purebred myself," she said. "French, German, a little Jewish, some Scottish."
"No relation to the McIntyres?" I asked.
"I hope not. The youngest, Samuel, got heavily into opium. He started staying up all night puffing on his opium pipe and writing, mixing his father's notes with his own drug-induced visions. Which is why nobody is sure what to call the group. A cult? An esoteric mystery religion? But all the published information describes the experience as 'interesting.' Just imagine it, being able to exist in another reality."
"I need to get to sleep," I said, getting up, not really tired but hoping to fix a badly disjointed circadian cycle.
"Need a lift?" she asked.
It was not a far walk to the hotel. But I was unsure about the hills and their cobblestone sidewalks. "Could we swing around and get a look at the Falls?"
"Ah, the scenic route," she said, nodding her head.
After seeing the Falls,and walking a while in Queen Victoria Park she drove me to a more residential part of the city. My gaze had slowly risen to her hair. "Not your natural color," I joked.
"Never!" she said, laughing. "Although, every few years I do need to shave it all off, let it grow back healthy and renewed."
"Is that all," I began to say but stopped, realizing how inappropriately the question could be taken.
She pulled aside and stopped in an empty but well-lit spot. "Look for yourself," she said, undoing her fly and exposing a smooth, hairless area that reflected the streetlight to nice effect.
"Another off the clock wardrobe change?" I asked, noticing what she was not wearing.
"What do you think?" she asked, redoing her fly and resuming driving.
"I'm wondering how you're sure I'm not a rapist or something."
"I've been observing you from the moment I first took your order. Casual but unfocused demeanor. Hand movements; fluid but slow. In the time it would take for you to make a move, I could flip this car over, possibly killing both of us. Are you willing to take that chance or wait a few days when it might be consensual with a little patience?"
"You do have the height advantage," I said, realizing my lack of fighting ability and that she might well beat me should I try anything stupid.
"And I can read people," she said, turning into the hotel parking lot. "You've probably got your share of kinks but you're hardly one who needs to be in control of a situation."
"Well, thanks," I said, wondering if she was the one needing to be in control of every situation. I opening the car door. "Will I..."
"Think about me and what I showed you when tonight when you're all alone. I'll be thinking of you when I am. Oh yeah, my shift is two to ten. You seem to like the poutine, and we can talk more about my coming to America and joining the Willoughby Castle group."
I walked to my room, considering the concept of love at first sight. Sometimes, I guessed it depends of what you were looking at.
I did dream about her, a jumble of images lacking any coherence. Sometimes I conflated her with the still painful memories of my divorce. Sometimes I dreamed about Sam McIntyre and his insane dream of combining opium and sex to summon the Whore of Babylon, which I realized was simply an attack on the Cult of Ishtar.
It's an old trick. Label the competition as something evil. Christianity did it with Ishtar. The Romans did it with the Cult of Moloch. Even today, politicians do it for votes. There was too much for my dreams to process and they fell apart into psychedelic randomness.
As I walked to the restaurant, I questioned myself. Did I really want to do this? Part of me was terrified by this tall, brutally blunt woman and her interest in an obscure American cult. Part of me was fascinated by her. How different she was from Cecilia. I thought about the unused rooms Cecilia and I had planned as our kids' rooms. Maybe I could use a roommate. I might hope for more but knowing myself, knew I would respect her wishes.
But her wishes, what would those be coming from a woman who showed me her most private parts only hours after first meeting? Yes, I was overthinking the whole thing but then, I'd never met anyone quite like her before. Stop it, I said as a personal rebuke. I was overthinking my over-thinking," should I be there early or late? Then I saw her standing outside the door sipping from a bottle of water.