"Mavis, do you feel like taking a side trip to the Falls?"
It wasn't the hypnotic lure of Niagara Falls that made Bert suggest it. He'd seen them plenty of times. It was just that it had been a quiet ride in the car—a nervous kind of quiet. He thought it was a good way to stir up some conversation and jog the mood to something more vacation-worthy. He took his eye off the interstate traffic for a moment to glance at Mavis, silent in the passenger's seat, looking out her window.
"Niagara Falls is about halfway," he explained. "We could have lunch on the Canadian side. After that, we can pick up the QEW outside of town and be on our way to Toronto. We would still be there in plenty of time."
He finished passing the truck on his right. He pulled back into the lane and glanced at Mavis again, who hadn't yet answered him.
"I haven't seen the Falls in such a long time," she admitted. "Phil and I took the children to see them before he got sick. That must have been at least twenty years ago."
"Well, we've got the time, like I said, and it's a nice day. It's September, so with schools back in session the crowds shouldn't be bad at all. Whaddya say—Maid of the Mist, Cave of the Winds? There's a nice restaurant that overlooks Horseshoe Falls."
She sighed. "Thanks for the offer, Bert. Mind if I pass? Maybe we can stop on the way back."
Her answer was a disappointment. If she'd accepted the offer they would find that convenient time-out opportunity he thought they needed. Not to his liking, they were on Grand Island already, approaching Toronto too fast.
"Too many memories? It's okay; I understand, Mavis."
"It's not that, Bert," she replied. "Phil's been gone for eighteen years. The children are grown up, too. Life moves on. We can visit Niagara Falls some other time."
"Why not, then?" Bert asked her. "Is there a garden near the hotel that you want to take in before nightfall?"
He'd agreed to take her to Toronto to tour the public gardens with the autumn flowers blooming. He had nothing against flowers, but he didn't know an aster from a pansy. Gardens were her pastime, not his. She'd hinted about it several times. It was a good excuse to get out of town for a few days. So, there they were, swiftly approaching their destination; a widow and a widower on their way to Canada to see the flowers.
"No, nothing like that," she murmured. "I think we need to get to where we set out for."
Bert thought that she sounded like a convict hurrying to the gallows. He harrumphed to himself. At least he understood things better after that comment. The quiet mood, refusal of the side trip to Niagara Falls—it all made sense.
"Mavis," he said, "maybe getting the single room was a mistake. There's no reason to push this thing. We can change our minds and get a second hotel room when we get there. I think the whole thing is getting on our nerves."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw her frowning at him. He tried to read her expression. At first it looked like grim determination, and then confusion, fading to sadness.
"Putting pressure on something like this is always a mistake," he continued. "We could see if they have adjoining rooms. Then, if the moment seems right..."
"We've been seeing one another for a year, Bert. It's time," she pronounced and then crossed her arms and resumed staring out the passenger window.
Her declaration affirmed the sentence; there would be no appeal; the gallows awaited and were directly in their charted path.
"It's not always like that with things of this nature," Bert appealed, in spite of the edict. "I'd like to think there'd be a natural time to just—you know, come together—all spontaneous-like."
"I'm not as romantic as you are, Bert," she answered, and then retreated back to silence.
To Bert, the refusal seemed more than a difference of opinion. It was rejection of sorts— and confusing, too. Bert wasn't the most experienced guy around—women-wise—but he knew how they liked things done the romantic way.
He drove another mile before answering her. "Actually, Mavis," he began, "I'm happy just to be with you. It's going to be a nice trip—just the two of us. Even if we don't—you know, uh—make love, it will still be a nice trip. We can talk; get to know each other better."
He congratulated himself on saying just the right thing in the moment. It wasn't easy. It had been years since deciphering the feelings of a woman had been up to him, and he'd considered himself to have done so with great aplomb.
"It's because I'm too old," she retorted at once. "You don't want to because of that."
She didn't say it in an angry voice, but in one that was rather soft and sad. It was more a statement of fact than an accusation. She said it as though she was informing him of something he needed to understand. It caught Bert off-guard. He felt that she was hurt and it was his fault. As he recanted his earlier self-congratulations, she spoke again.
"You're no younger than me, Bert."
There it was; finally, he felt he understood what was on her mind. First, was the confession of self-doubt followed by the preemptive counterattack-in-advance—a sharing of insecurity
"I know how old I am," he thought. "I'm old enough to know better."
With that he fixed his eyes on the road and decided to say nothing further. It occurred to him that he'd never seen this insecure side of her before. After thinking about it, he realized he hadn't foreseen her non-romantic side, either. He believed that he detected stubbornness in her, too. She had never seemed insecure or stubborn in the twelve months they'd been seeing one another. All-in-all, he felt justified in his second thoughts about the whole trip.
Bert thought some more and remembered that they'd never shared any kind of intimacy. There had been the time he'd appreciated her backside in secret. He judged it to be nicely rounded, albeit shrouded in a pleated skirt. She was bending over the oven to tend a pot roast she was cooking for him and he was standing behind her. That, however, had been a one-way encounter. He kept his comments about that to himself.
"It's a nice little bottom, even if she thinks it's an old one."
However one-way the encounter might have been, it wasn't long afterward that Bert did agree to the trip to Toronto. It was between courses and there was a pause in conversation. Then, she began hinting about the flowers again. Before he'd realized what he was saying he posed the idea of the trip to her. They made plans over apple pie á la mode.
"She seduced me with that apple pie," he declared to himself as he shook his head.
"Is that a 'no'?" she demanded, and that shook him from his private thoughts.
"What're you talkin' about, Mavis?"
"I saw you shaking your head," she answered.
"Sorry; I didn't mean it that way." He had to think fast. "I was just trying to figure out these kilometers. We're crossing into Canada, you know. I'm used to miles."
"Oh," she nodded, "I thought you meant something else."
What she said made him feel bad, and he was glad to have thought of the little white lie in the spur of the moment. He still had some savvy left. He reached over and patted her hand.
"Don't worry, Mavis. These things have a way of working themselves out. You'll see."
She didn't say anything; she answered with a smile. Bert knew he'd said the right thing. It relaxed him and that allowed him to see things more clearly.
He was assured by his reverie; it was not the ravages of her fifty-five years that made him hesitate. He just didn't like pressure about these kinds of things. Perhaps there were other reasons, too. They were for him to know. Everyone had a right to one's own secret thoughts. His recollection of her shapely bottom wouldn't go away. He reconsidered his doubts.
"Maybe she's not really insecure and stubborn. I'll bet she's just nervous."
"Hey, Mavis," he said out loud, "let's not spoil everything before we even get there." He hesitated a moment to make certain she was listening. "I didn't mean to offend you; I don't think I explained myself very well."
"You're right, Bert," she answered. "It would be a shame to fight."
They had crossed the river at the Lewiston Bridge a few minutes before. There was a queue to go through Canadian Immigration.
"It's probably a good thing that we didn't go to the Falls," he observed as they looked out over the line of waiting cars. "Who knows how long this will take."
Their conversation halted for a minute or two while they fumbled with their papers.
The inspector was a young woman in her early thirties. She was slim and attractive, wearing the uniform of the Canadian Border Service. She looked pleasant and business-like at the same time, in that Canadian kind of way.
"Good afternoon; welcome to Canada," she smiled. "Papers, please!"
Mavis passed her driver's license and birth certificate to Bert. He had a passport. He handed it all out the window. As she turned and walked to a little office building the thought suddenly occurred to him.
"Omigosh! She'll look at the names and addresses and realize we're not married."
He reasoned that it was too late to worry; and, although it didn't worry him he drummed his fingers on the steering wheel while he and Mavis waited in the car.
The officer returned to them after a few minutes. She was smiling, which Bert thought was a smirk.
"What's your destination?" she asked in her pleasant-businesslike voice.
"Toronto," Bert mumbled.
"And will it be business or pleasure?" was the rejoinder.
"Pleasure!" Mavis blurted out. Bert shook with alarm for a brief second and then wished he'd had a chance to give a more tactful answer.
"We're going to see the public gardens," he hastened to explain. He thought that the clarification refreshed the smirk on the face of the young inquisitor.
"Enjoy your visit," she replied as she handed back their papers. Bert was nearly certain that she gave them a wink as he closed the car window, but knew that she probably didn't and he was grateful that she had no more questions.
"Can you hold on to these while I drive, Mavis?" he asked. He handed her their papers and Mavis dropped them into her purse. He sped away, hoping to disappear onto the QEW as fast as he could. They were cruising through Saint Cats before they spoke again.
"I know I embarrassed you in front of the border guard, Bert," she acknowledged. "It slipped out."
He was merging from 405 to the QEW, which gave him an excuse to pause and consider his answer.
"I suppose a little," Bert replied. "It's okay, though; I'm just a little out of my element." He stole a glance at her. She had that lock-jaw look again, which worried Bert and they had just an hour and a half left to drive.
"Look, Mavis," he said, "maybe it's a mistake to get your expectations too high. Sometimes the first time isn't always the best. A couple has to get used to one another. We have to take our time. I know you're looking forward to it and all, but..."
"Looking forward?" she blurted back at him. "I'm worried, Bert." He glanced over to her in the passenger's seat. He saw her bite her lower lip, and there was definitely a tremble in her voice. Her eyes were glistening with tears.
"Worried? What about, Mavis?"
"It's nothing," she replied and fell silent anew. They drove for another mile before she spoke again. "It's everything, Bert. I haven't been—intimate—since before Phil passed away. I thought I'd gotten used to not having that. This will be a big change for me."
"It'll be alright, Mavis; like I said..."
"There's been nothing—in there—all this time. A woman my age doesn't lubricate very easily. Maybe I won't be able to. Maybe it will hurt. I'll just have to find out."
"I didn't know about those things, Mavis," Bert said. It occurred to him that Mavis had put herself onto a course that required considerable courage, and he had to admire that. It was hard to think about that and not soften just a little. "Don't worry; we'll take it slow." He released his right hand from the steering wheel and reached it out and set on hers. She looked over to him and forced out a weak smile.
"Maybe I won't please you," she added. Bert barely heard her; she uttered the doubt in a hoarse whisper.
"I wouldn't count on that," he replied. "You're pleasing me right now."
She smiled more broadly and liberated her hand from under his. She reached over and patted him on the thigh. She became silent again, but Bert thought she looked contented instead of worried. He felt better, too. Traffic was getting heavier as they neared Hamilton. Bert thought they would talk more as they left the city behind them and turned toward Toronto. It was not to be. Traffic just kept picking up and the route was new to him. So, they rode along, each alone perusing one's own thoughts.
Bert threaded the car through the streets of downtown Toronto. At last he pulled the car up to a curved drive in front of the hotel. He handed the keys to a valet who whisked the car away and a bellhop led them to the front desk. Bert gave his name to a young woman behind it and she proceeded to check them in.
"Single room, double occupancy?" she rapped out.
Mavis' squeezed Bert's arm and he felt his last chance at the extra room fly away. He cleared his throat. "Um—yes, single room—two people." He handed over his credit card.
"Very good; sign the registration card, please," she recited. She took a second quick glance at the card. "Oh yes, if you brought a car you need to fill in that portion—and of course, fill in your wife's name too."
Bert obeyed and wrote it all in the proper spaces and handed the card back over the desk.
"Uh, my wife still uses her maiden name," he explained in advance. The clerk looked at him and then at Mavis and raised her eyebrows.
"That's fine—whatever," the clerk replied as she handed the keycards over the desk to Bert. She pounded a bell and a bellman hurried to grab the bags.
"There aren't many suitcases," Bert told him as he grabbed the handles just in time. "We can manage."
They found the elevators and stepped into an empty car.
"Sorry what I said back at the desk, Mavis—I mean about you using your maiden name."
"It's alright, Bert. I understand," she answered.
"It's just that I was nervous and I had to think fast. It seemed easier than to explain everything to her."
"Don't worry; I understand, Bert," she repeated.
"Anyway, I don't think she believed me. I think she has it figured out."
"Bert, it doesn't matter. They don't check that anymore. I don't think she cared."
"It reminds me of Jane's and my wedding night. I had to dig through our luggage to get out our marriage license before the desk clerk would let us have a room. I guess that was a long time ago"
Mavis didn't answer. They had arrived at their room. Bert slid the key card into the slot and soon they were looking out the fourteenth floor window at the view of the CN Tower with Lake Ontario in the background. Mavis glanced at the bed; Bert saw her in the corner of his eye, but he kept gazing straight ahead out the window.
"It's a little early for dinner," Bert declared. "Why don't we take a walk first and find a nice restaurant?"
Mavis hesitated for a few seconds. "I'd like to freshen up first," she said, glancing at the bathroom. "I brought a bottle of Champagne in my luggage. We could get some ice and chill it for afterwards."
Mavis picked up one of her small suitcases and disappeared into the bathroom before Bert had a chance to answer.
"I'll go out and get some ice," he called after her as she closed the bathroom door.
Bert had been without a woman's companionship for many years, but recalled enough to know that Mavis' disappearance into the bathroom meant he wouldn't be needed for awhile. He decided to look for the ice cube machine by taking the long way around. He had a chance to do some thinking.
He tried, but couldn't see what Mavis saw in him and why she was so eager. She shouldn't have been. She was the one who'd pointed out many of the physical difficulties. "I never made any claim to be a great lover," he assured himself. He wondered what Mavis expected of him. It had been a long time since he had to think about sex; it wasn't too long ago when he thought that part of life had been consigned to the past. He'd shrugged it off in little steps over the years since Jane was gone. It was a comfortable retirement.
"I'm not sure that Mavis truly wants sex." He thought about her cryptic comments on the drive over and her face full of trepidation. "Maybe," he thought, "she'd been goaded into it by her friends." He was very fond of Mavis—but her friends were...
"That's it!" he said out loud and snapped his fingers. "It's her friends pushing her into it." It made so much sense to him. At the last moment she'd back out, if given half a chance. He knew just how to finesse it. They'd go out and have a few drinks at dinner. The champagne would be waiting for their return, chilled in the hotel room. After a few more drinks than what she was used to, she'd want to sleep. It would all work out. He figured to sleep in the chair. They could discuss everything rationally in the morning.
He shoveled the cubes into the bucket, happy that he had figured out their mutual escape plan. Best of all, there would be no loss of face. She will have meant to complete their grand quest but fall asleep because of the drinks. He would be the disappointed-but-understanding suitor. In the morning they would have a heart-to-heart talk and straighten things out. They could walk around a few gardens for a few days, and see a show. They could visit Niagara Falls on the way back; all would be as it had been before. There might even be a Blue Jays game in it if he played his cards exactly right. He would stop at the desk later and see if they were in town. Her friends need never know, and if they wanted to titter at their tea parties—good for them.
He found a new bounce in his step as he headed back to their room. He'd come across a few restaurant brochures. They could take a look at them and then go out. He slipped the key card in the door.
"Mavis," he called as he opened the door, "I got the ice. I found out there's a lot of Chinese restaurants in this section of town and..."
Bert stepped into the room and what he saw made him stop speaking. Mavis was in the double bed, sitting propped up against the pillows. She had turned off most of the lights in the room and closed the drapes.