An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
The Ideal Partner
By Sheila Sine
“So,” Mum said, “how is Vanessa?”
Harold repressed a sigh, he’d known as soon as she rang that his mum would get around to asking about the latest woman he was dating. It was what these calls always boiled down to sooner or later. He hesitated, and confessed: “I’m not sure it’s going to work out.”
“What? Why? You’ve only been on two dates. What’s wrong with her?”
Harold pinched the bridge of his nose. It was always the same conversation with every woman his mother tried to set him up with, from Clarissa the animal trainer from the London Zoo to Helena the new age tattoo artist who always smelled like mint.
“She’s just not my type,” he hedged, his standard response to see the conversation through to the end, it was easier than explaining the real reason.
“Harold, she’s a human being and as such she will have faults. The perfect woman isn’t going to fall into your lap. Relationships take time and work.”
“I’m willing to wait and work when the right person comes along, believe me.”
There was silence from the other end of the connection. At last his mum said, “Harold, dear, you’re a jewellery designer and I know many men in that field play for the other team, which is perfectly fine as long as they are happy and healthy. If you happen to be like those men, I would hope you’d feel comfortable enough to tell me and your dad.”
He frowned, wondering how long she’d been waiting to ask that. “No, Mum, I prefer women.”
She didn’t seem to hear his flat response and kept talking, obviously ready to say her piece as a supportive parent: “It’s alright if you are. Your dad and I will love you no matter what your sexual orientation.”
“I’m not gay, Mum! I’m bloody straight.”
“Well, then I don’t see why you don’t give Vanessa another chance.”
Harold paused, taken aback by quick backtrack to Vanessa. He sighed, he was so sick of this. “Look, it’s getting late and I’m still getting over jet lag. I should go.”
“Harold, wait! I’m only badgering because I care. You’re my only son and you’ve worked so hard, I just want you to be happy.”
His shoulders drooped as his annoyance dissipated. “I know, Mum. And I’m not unhappy.”
“I just worry about you, traveling so much and coming home to that empty flat every night. It’d be nice if you had someone to waiting for you.”
A girlfriend is not a pet that waits for you to come home, he thought. If you want me to get a dog or a pet fish you should just say so. But he knew that’s not what she meant. He enjoyed being his parent’s only child, especially after seeing the frustrations and bullying that went on in larger families; but because he was an only child, it meant his parents had placed all their eggs in his basket.
He said, “You shouldn’t worry about me, Mum. Think about all the things you and Dad can do now that he’s getting ready to retire, like holiday on the Isle of Wight. Besides, with all my new work and the negotiations with the buyers, it’s almost a relief to come home to a quiet flat at the end of the day. I’m thirty-one years old; you don’t need to worry about me every second of the day.”
“Maybe you’re right. Your dad has been saying the same thing for years.” She yawned. “I had better get ready for bed, and so should you, if you’re still not sleeping well.”
“Goodnight, Mum. Thanks for the call.”
“Goodnight, dear. And think about Vanessa, won’t you? She’s a lovely, successful girl and you two are positively striking together.”
“I will, Mum. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye. I love you.”
“Love you too.” He disconnected and set his mobile on the counter, stretching his arms and rolling his neck to relieve his stiff muscles. Harold took a sip from his wine glass, knowing his mum had a point. Vanessa was engaging, beautiful, and a successful solicitor . He liked her and knew that many men would envy him for his good fortune. She was not the problem at all.
Rising from his seat at the granite top counter in his kitchen he crossed the unlit living room, easily avoiding the sparse furniture, to the large windows that overlooked his back garden and the private park beyond. The reason things weren’t working out with Vanessa was his fault, again. Harold had never been outgoing at the best of times, and his coldness had frightened people off before. But there was always something wrong with the women he dated, often it was awkward, sometimes they parted as friends, but he’d never loved any of them. There had been some lust but that was it. The reason behind this was something he’d never told anyone for fear of sounding like a misogynistic bastard.
Harold closed his eyes, leaning his forehead against the cool glass. Her image rose from the corner of his mind where it always resided, ready to come to him when he was distracted. Dark, curling hair, hazel eyes, full lips parted in a smile; her skin was tanned and she was clothed in a loose white dress. He felt himself relax as he thought of her. She was more than just beautiful. She is guileless and wholesome, with an open heart, prepared to love everything she sees.
Straightening, he opened his eyes. The thought and emotion that came with it, adoration, had crossed his mind more than once when he thought of her. But they didn’t feel like his words. He could not imagine himself saying that to any woman. On the other hand, both the woman and the way she made him feel was familiar as if she was someone he’d known intimately before.
He shook his head and turned from the window. How thick are you, he thought, pining after a woman who only exists in your bloody caveman fantasies?
But she wasn’t just a fantasy, he knew things about her. She likes pomegranates and baby animals and gardening and making love early in the morning because she’s a morning person.
Harold covered his face with his hands running them through up his hair, making it stand on end.
His mum was right, there was no such thing as a fantasy woman, no matter how detailed that fantasy might be. This schoolboy fantasy had warped his thinking. He would give it another shot with Vanessa. In fact, he would call her in the morning and see if she was free on Friday.
Harold returned to his place at the counter in the kitchen and drained the last of the pinot noir from his glass. Warmth flooded his stomach as his mind turned to his agenda for tomorrow. Yawning he went upstairs, concentrating on the next day to avoid thinking about what awaited him when he slept.
The woman did come to him that night. When he awoke, all Harold could remember was approaching her through a field of flowers that rippled in a gentle West wind. His morning workout and shower helped to shake off the image. As he sat in his robe drinking coffee in the kitchen, watching the light shift across the Spartan furnishings and unopened boxes stacked in the corners of his living room, she returned to him. Despite living here for over three months, the flat barely looked lived in. He’d spent most of his time working, finishing the “Wealth of the Earth” collection and traveling to the States. Coming home late and leaving early to get to his workshop had reduced his living room to just another room he had to walk through to get to and from the front door. Now in the early morning light, it looked less real to him than his dream of the woman.
Harold downed the rest of his coffee and went upstairs to finish dressing, perhaps he should just get a dog. He hadn’t had one since he was seventeen. When he came downstairs and took down his coat, he looked through the window at the walled garden and the park beyond. A dog might not be such a bad idea.
Later that day, he called Vanessa just before noon. “Hello?”
“Hello…beautiful,” he said and winced. Could he have tried any bloody harder?
“Harold?” she asked, sounding surprised.
“Yeah, sorry,” he said. “I was just ringing to see if you were free this Friday.”
Pause, then Vanessa said, “Okay. I’m actually going to be in court all week but it’s fairly straightforward so I should be free by Friday evening. Did you have any place in mind?”
“Uh, no. Any place you’d like to go?”
“I heard about a Greek place in North London that’s supposed to be pretty good. We can go there.”
He smiled slightly. “Right, that sounds fine. I’ll see you on Friday, around eight o’clock?”
“That’s fine. Do you want the address?”
“Oh, of course,” he said, grimacing.
She gave it to him and they said their goodbyes. Harold slipped his mobile into his pocket and leaned forward to organize the sketches on his drafting table. They were preliminary designs for the collection he would release in the spring. Now that his “Wealth of the Earth” was becoming a major trend on runways and in shops his designs were in higher demand than ever before. However, with all the back and forth he’d been going through with his American buyers, sketches were as far as he’d gotten, he didn’t even have a firm theme in mind. Harold made a note on a design for a pair of cufflinks. The studio phone rang. A glance at the display confirmed that it was long distance from New York. I’m hard pressed to get any work done here without a moment’s peace, he groused. Harold answered it, wondering why metals and precious stones were easier to understand than people.
Friday evening, Harold was late. It was only ten minutes after eight o’clock, but he was late nonetheless. Luckily, Vanessa was still waiting to be seated. She rose when he entered. With ginger hair, a willowy figure and considerable height for a woman, Vanessa knew how to use her appearance to make an impression and hold the attention of everyone in a room. This ability undoubtedly served her well in a courtroom but right now it made him feel like an oaf. He shot her an apologetic look and motioned her to precede him as they were led to their table.
The accusation of tardiness hung between them as they ordered and Harold knew for certain what he had supposed after the first date. The tension between them was compounded by a pair of patrons at the next table, and older man and a young woman who were arguing.
After the waiter left them Vanessa folded her hands together, her gaze flicking toward the next table where the pair had descended into stony silence. “I take it your trip to New York went well,” she said.
He nodded. “It did. The flight was uncomfortable, but I’ve always hated flying. However, it seems that as long as they keep holding Fashion Week in New York City, then I’m going to need to go there now and then.
She nodded and sipped her wine. “What else is new?”
Harold pinched the bridge of his nose. “One of my buyers and I are having some creative differences, which why I’m late. When they approached me about the collection they said it was because I managed to combine the raw, natural beauty of precious stones with sophistication that can flatter almost anyone. Now they want me to do something similar for teens, something ostentatious and trendy, like capitalize on the owl or skull fads.”
Vanessa snorted delicately as her posture relaxed and a small smile crossed her face. “It sounds like they want to pay you to make things for them to sell, not sell the things you make.”
“Exactly,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about your case.”
Vanessa’s eyes rose to his, alertness touched her face as it usually did when she talked about the courtroom. “As I said on Monday, it was fairly straightforward, a woman was suing her husband for divorce; we won. He was a cheating bastard, she deserved so much better.”
He raised his glass to her. “Congratulations.”
They talked of inconsequential things after that, echoing one another’s opinions about politics and football until their dinners came. Both of them made noises of approval and gustatory pleasure, but only as a token show of appreciation as the man at the next table kept up a steady commentary about the quality of his food. His comments were loud and usually negative, much to the chagrin of the young woman who seemed on the verge of her patience.
Harold felt his attention wander as he tuned the complaining man out. The smell of the Greek cuisine was stirring up distant memories that he was reluctant to put any effort into giving them form or definition. He had a good idea where they would lead. Vanessa also seemed abstracted.
As the man lectured the young woman about seasonings, Harold said the first thing that came into his mind. “I’m seriously considering getting a dog.”
Vanessa focused on him, shaking her head at little. “Oh, what kind?”
“A big one. I’m a big guy and I have a lot of space. I’ve heard a lot of good about Great Danes. I’m looking into a few rescues.”
Vanessa nodded. “That sounds nice.”
Harold nodded in return. He was about to initiate conversation again when the man at the next table exclaimed: “Four dollars for a cup of coffee? What do they brew it with? Holy water? I’m not spending four dollars on a cup of coffee.”
“Pounds, Dad,” the young woman said. “We’re in Britain, their currency is the Pound not the dollar.”
I wouldn’t pay in pounds either,” he replied. “They’d be lucky if they got ounces. I don’t know why we came here; the food is barely worth the price.” He leaned across the table toward her. “I’m telling you, Lucia. The only place to find good Greek food is in Brooklyn or at your cousin’s restaurant in Atlantic City.”
The young woman—Lucia—clenched her fists on the tabletop. “I hate it when you do this, and you do it every time we eat at a Greek restaurant you’re unfamiliar with. You complain about the food or the authenticity of the decorations. You’ve never been to Greece! None of these places are going to be like the fake Greece that exists inside your head so why don’t you shut up and move on? Everyone else has!” She stood up and stormed out of the restaurant. The man rose to follow her but was approached by a short waiter with bushy eyebrows. Grumbling, the man shoved a handful of notes at the waiter and left.
“I do apologize for all that on behalf of the other staff,” the waiter said. Some patrons made noises of commiseration and then conversations resumed.
Harold turned to Vanessa who was staring into her wine glass, turning it in between her fingers.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
Her gaze lifted to his. She seemed to be debating something, finally she said: “I’m trying to decide whether I should get drunk enough to sleep with you tonight.”
He blinked and sat back. “And…”
“And, I’m not sure.” She put a hand to her forehead. I’m sorry, I’ve been thinking about this all week, about us, where these dates are going.” Vanessa looked up at him. “Honestly, when you first called, I thought you were getting ready to say that we should stop seeing one another.”
Relief warred with disappointment, but surprise numbed everything for now. Vanessa kept talking: “You’re an intelligent, driven, handsome man, and I’ve enjoyed our time together but sometimes when I look at you it’s as if you’re not here, like you’re lost in another time.”
“Do you think we should end it?”
She looked at him, he could tell that she was sorry to cause him hurt, but sorry for him was all she felt. For his part, Harold felt cold.
Vanessa said, “Yes, I think it’s time.”
He nodded. “So do I.” Lifting his hand, he beckoned the waiter to bring their bills. They paid separately and in silence.
When they left Vanessa paused before getting into her car. “I’m sorry, Harold. I hope that we can still be friends.”
“It’s not your fault,” he said. Smiling slightly, he added: “I’ll call you if I need a cracking good solicitor.”
She returned it. “Good luck with the Americans, I hope your taste will improve theirs.” He chuckled without humor. “And Harold, I hope you find someone to love.” His attempt at good cheer vanished. Vanessa took his hand and squeezed. “I really do,” she said.
“I wish you the same,” he said. She released him and his hand fell to his side. Vanessa got into her car and he walked to his own.
When he got back to his flat it seemed even emptier than before. As if a ghost lived here instead of a man, he thought, his footsteps echoing on the laminate of the kitchen. That evening Harold got so drunk that he slept like the dead, dreamlessly. That realization was of little comfort to him when he woke up hung over the next morning.
A week later Harold was ending a call with the advertising agency. who had called to tell him the “’Wealth of the Earth’—Cornfield” ad would start running later that week, when his mobile rang.
“Hello. Is this Mr. Harold Cedricson?”
“My name is Quinn, I’m an adoption officer with the Great Dane Rescue of Great Britain. I’m calling about your application to rescue a Great Dane. Some of your particulars were a little vague so I wanted to get some more information.”
“Alright.” Harold frowned, then the foggy memory returned, the weekend he’d gotten pissed he had filled out an application online.
“You say that you previously owned a dog,” Quinn said.
“Yes, when I was a boy. We had a mutt for ten years, he died of old age when I was seventeen.”
“I see. And you say you live in a rental property.”
“Yes, pets are allowed. I just need to pay a fee to my landlord to cover any damages. I can get you the lease.”
“I will need to see that. You’ve indicated that you will need to leave your home for at least four hours a day. Do you believe you can meet the social needs for a Dane?”
“I do,” Harold said. “I’m basically self-employed. I can make my work schedule more flexible or bring the dog to work with me if I need to.”
“I see. And you said that you prefer a male puppy. Why is that?”
“Because I thought a male dog would be less intimidated by me and I want a puppy or a young dog because I want to have one for as long as possible.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cedricson. I’ll call you once I find the right Dane for you.”
Harold did not hear from the adoption officer for two more weeks. Until one Friday: “Hello, Mr. Cedricson? This is Quinn, the adoption officer.”
“Yes, this is he,” Harold said.
“I think I’ve found a dog for you. Are you free this weekend?”
“Absolutely,” Harold answered, feeling more hopeful than he had in weeks. Quinn gave him the address of a foster home in the Midlands and they agreed on a time.
When Harold arrived on Saturday he was met with half a dozen Great Dane puppies that boiled out of Quinn’s front door. Quinn was a lean man just a few years younger than Harold.
“I see you’ve met them already,” Quinn said, smiling down at the black and brown dogs. “Come inside, I’ve got some doughnuts and biscuits; we’ll have a cuppa and you can get to know them.”
Harold met the pups one by one, a few were reluctant and gave him plenty of space when they were allowed to leave, and a few were friendly but found other things to interest them. By the time he’d seen the all, he knew which was the right one.
“His name’s Spoticus Rex,” Quinn said, gesturing to the black and brindle puppy trying to climb into Harold’s lap.
“That’s an awfully long name for a puppy,” Harold replied, giving the pup a boost.
Quinn shrugged. “This lot are rejects from a breeder. Spoticus is a brindlequin, black with brindle splotches, and that makes him unacceptable as a show dog.”
Harold shook his head and looked down at the pup just in time to see him try for a bite of one of the doughnuts on the coffee table.
“Oye,” Harold said, “don’t eat that!”
The puppy flinched back and Harold worried that he’d been too forceful. Spoticus looked up at him his tongue hanging out and his tail wagging, the picture of innocence.
Harold looked up at Quinn, “Let me know when we can draw up the adoption papers. I think Spot and I will get on just fine.”
When he brought Spot home that evening, the puppy wasted no time in exploring the entire flat and had completely worn himself out by the time Harold went to bed. But after turning out the light, he felt the mattress dip and the slight jostling of something small walking across to lie down next to his legs. Lifting his head, Harold could make out Spot curled up next to his shins. He smiled and fell asleep.
He dreamed of the woman again for the first time in weeks. She stood in the field of wild flowers and he walked toward her out of some dark place. He opened his mouth to call to her; her name on the tip of his tongue. She turned to face him before he could voice it.
For the first time, she spoke: “Husband, I have missed you.”
He replied, “Persephone, it’s been so long.”
© 2013 Sheila Sine