"They've called another group meeting, so I probably won't get home until about nine. You might as well go ahead and eat supper."
With a silent inward sigh, Barb answered, "OK. I'll have a plate ready for you to microwave. Love you, Don."
Don responded with a quick, "Love you, too. Bye," and hung up.
Such calls were not really unusual and Barb had to admit that she made about as many as Don did. It just seemed that their life had become so busy that it was really hard to find time together anymore. A year ago it had been really different.
Barb was twenty-two and a half while Don was seven months older. They had been going together since the fall of the previous year and living together since the last spring. Both had been seniors, Barb in business and Don in engineering. And both had been head over heels in love with each other. In fact, they still were, but somehow it now seemed different. Last year they had time for long peaceful walks and quiet dinners followed by evenings of music or movies. And hardly a day passed without some long and passionate love making.
When graduation had come a year ago things hadn't changed so very much. In fact, there was a little more money as Barb was working full time and Don had a research assistantship. Barb had gotten a job with an advertising agency in town and Don took a couple of courses to get a head start on his grad work which was to begin in earnest in the fall. This still left their weekends largely free and the summer was filled with more long walks, picnics, trips to the beach, and a lot of love making. But during the fall things had started to move faster. By then Barb had had a chance to learn the ropes and was assigned to several accounts. This often involved some late nights, dinners or drinks with clients, and occasional weekend work. As Don had started into his graduate program he discovered that what had seemed a lot of work as an undergraduate was a walk in the park compared to this. The classes were harder and covered a lot more material and in addition he was now required to spend time with his professor's research group.
Throughout the rest of the fall and early spring the workloads had intensified even more for both of them. It wasn't like they lost interest in each other; it was just that there never seemed to be enough time for the things they would like to do. Barb was assigned a couple of accounts on her own and Don got deeper and deeper into his research. They still made love at least three or four times a week, but now it often seemed less romantic, more simply a way to relieve the pent up sexual pressure. Barb had to be at work by 8:30 so she had to get up before seven at the latest while Don frequently had late night work or study sessions, not getting to bed until well after midnight. And there were the frequent, sudden calls form both announcing a missed dinner or other delay.
In truth, although both were happy with what they were doing, and each very much loved the other, each often felt that something had been lost from their relationship. Barb missed the slow, candle lit dinners and the heavy necking and love making which often followed them. Don used to surprise her with a single flower, but it had been months since he had done this. She understood why. It is difficult to think of such things when exams and research work are so paramount. When they were still seniors and Don had a night exam, returning after ten, they several times left the apartment to go for a moonlight walk along the river, sometimes stopping to make love while hidden in the bushes and not returning home until two, three, or even four in the morning. He missed that, but he realized that Barb couldn't go walking until two in the morning and be bright and ready for work early the next day. Both understood the reasons and both sometimes wished things could change back, but both also felt trapped in their present restraints.
Barb had some weeks ago discovered a way to at least mitigate the lack of romance. One night when Don had called to say he would be late, she decided to kill a little time surfing the net. Like almost every other college student she had at times explored some of the more sexually explicit sites and now casually stopped at a site with explicit stories. Soon she was lost in a fictional world of deep romance and hot sex. When Don returned late that night she was already in bed - naked - she and Don always slept nude - awake and waiting for him. As Don stripped and joined her she became the strong instigator and he certainly didn't object as they made love twice before dropping off to sleep. However, the sex seemed more of a physical act and Barb was left still slightly missing the romance she wished could have accompanied their coupling.
There had been other, similar nights when she or Don had seemed to be particularly aroused and had instigated their erotic activities. These couplings were certainly both passionate and loving, but somehow they still seemed to be lacking something, although neither of the two could have said exactly what, and, naturally enough, never mentioned this perceived lack.
Tonight, after Don's call, Barb fixed herself a quick meal and left a plate in the refrigerator for Don when he was able to return. Then, once again feeling restless, sat down at the computer and returned to her favorite story site. She checked her favorite authors and discovered that one had a new story. Quickly navigating to this she began to read and for the next hour was fully absorbed in the tale of romance and hot sex in the misty hills of Scotland during the eighteenth century. Finishing the story her gaze fell on the comments submitted by other readers. She glanced at several and then her eye caught on one in particular.
"An excellent tale! Wonderful escape form the trap of the real world into love and sex as it should be. Sometimes I really wish I could make that trip myself. signed: Questing Paladin."
Barb read it again. Something about the comment really hit home. On the spur of the moment she decided to send a message to Questing Paladin. This site allowed readers to communicate directly with each other within the site. Just e-mail, really, but you didn't have to give your e-mail address. Barb clicked the send-a-message icon and began to type.
"Questing Paladin. I agree with you about this story. I also think what you said describes what I think sometimes. I have been living with my boyfriend for the last year. We both graduated last spring. We still love each other very much and I would never consider leaving him, but somehow it seems the romance of our relationship has dulled a little. It just feels like work overwhelms us and leaves so little time for other things. Like you, I sometimes feel trapped in my life and wish - well, not really wish - but maybe just long for, an escape, even if only temporarily. I love my boyfriend and wouldn't really change our present life but sometimes I miss the wine and candlelight and the other trappings of romance. Am I making sense? signed: Willing Damsel." She looked at what she had written and for just a second hesitated. Then before she could change her mind she clicked the send button.
When Don arrived home she saw immediately that it had been a tiring and frustrating meeting. He was worked up over some argument which had dominated the group meeting and despite Barb's best efforts at trying to relax him, when they finally went to bed he was still too tense for any other activities. By the next morning the frustration seemed to have moved into the background and Don would have been more than ready to spend a little "quality time" with Barb, but when he awoke she was already dressed and on her way out the door. As he gave her a kiss on her way out he promised that he'd try to be home early that night.
He actually managed to get away and home by four thirty, but when he arrived he found a message on the answering machine from Barb saying she would be tied up with a client until late. He decided to get a head start on preparing for the exam he had coming in three days and for the next six hours he buried himself in the esoteric details of airflow interaction with different wing shapes with only a quick stop to glup down some leftover pizza. Nearly exhausted, he almost fell into bed at ten thirty and when Barb came in at eleven he was sound asleep. She entered the bedroom ready and eager to relax with some loving exercise, but when she saw how soundly asleep he was she guessed he had spent some hard hours studying and decided to leave him alone. She placed a light kiss on his forehead and then went back out of the bedroom.
Barb poured herself a glass of wine and slipped into the seat by the computer. As she waited for the machine to boot up, the message she had sent the previous evening came back to her. Would he answer? Did she really care? She wasn't trying to start anything with another guy. No, she was just looking for someone with whom she could share a little of her frustration, someone who felt trapped in the same way that she did.
She surfed over to the story site and saw immediately that she had an unread message. This wasn't like her regular e-mail account which would often accumulate dozens of different messages a day. This system was only used for communication between readers of this site and she almost never used it. So now she wasn't surprised to see that the message was from Questing Paladin. She clicked and opened it.
"Waiting Damsel. I think we must be a lot alike. I'm twenty-three, just got my degree last year and also live with my girlfriend. I also feel the same way about her as you do about your boyfriend. I love her deeply, more than I can say, but, like you, I feel a little trapped. Sometimes I feel life is rushing past too fast. I want to be able to stop and smell the roses, but somehow I can never seem to find the time. signed: Questing Paladin."
She quickly replied with another message.
"Questing Paladin. We do sound alike. I fully understand your trapped feeling as my life - as much as I love it and my boyfriend - still seems to keep me trapped also." She stopped typing for a second and, on a whim, added, "'I'd like to dance til two o'clock, or maybe dance to dawn ... just once, just once, before the dance is gone.'" Then, smiling to herself, she signed it, "Waiting Damsel."
When Barb arrived home the next evening, Don was still in class. She quickly went to the site to check for another message and found it.
"Waiting Damsel. I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I wish I could just take a time out, even if only for a short time. I don't want to really change my life - I think you know that. But it would be so nice to escape, even if just for a short time." Then, showing that he had caught her reference to the song from The Fantasticks, he had added, "'I'd like to swim in a clear blue sea where the water is icy cold ... just once, just once, just once before I'm old.'" Then he had added another line. "We can still dream and maybe we can just use each other to help us escape. signed: Questing Paladin."
For the next several days both Don and Barb managed to be home at dinner time and, although their separate work could never be completely forgotten, they managed to at least not talk about it a lot and spend time just being with each other. Their love making those nights was a little more intense than usual, but still didn't completely recapture what it had been a year previously.
Then one Thursday when Barb was again home alone for a few hours she signed on and found another message.
"Waiting Damsel. I have an idea. We both are suffering from the same thing - loss, or I should say, lessening of our romantic lives. We both love our mates and will never leave them. But we also both know that right now they don't have the time for the romance we desire. I think we should meet for one night. Just a few hours. No names, no details. Just one truly romantic encounter. 'Just once, just once ... before... ' Never again, no real names. Just one fantastic night, so that decades from now we can sit before the fire and remember that night as part of our past youth. If you don't want this, just tell me and I'll never mention it again. If, however, you would like to escape for a few hours, could you be free next Tuesday night? signed: Questing Paladin."
Barb sat frozen for several minutes before the computer. How did she feel? She wasn't sure. What he'd said did truly appeal to her, but did she want to make it reality? She just didn't know. Suddenly she shut down the machine and quickly moved to busy herself preparing dinner.
For the next two days she stayed away from the story site. Then on Saturday night she once again found herself alone while Don was tied up studying with his group for a big exam the next week. The idea of the escape had been kicking around in her head all this time and now she stopped and concentrated on it. Did she want one wild night to remember? Then she suddenly knew. Yes! She did. She would never leave Don, she loved him deeply, but she desperately needed this. She would never know who Questing Paladin really was and he would never know her. Don and Paladin's girlfriend would never know about it. Who would be harmed? And she would have it to remember "when the dance was gone."
She went to the computer and quickly sent a message.
"Questing Paladin. Yes. Let's escape. I'm sure I can manage to get Tuesday free. What should we do? signed: Waiting Damsel."
The next day she opened the site and read the reply.
"Waiting Damsel. Meet me Tuesday night in the park along the river north of town. At precisely ten be on the observation platform by the foot of the small waterfall. Wear a white silk blouse and a dark skirt. Nothing else. No names, no details. I will find you. signed: Questing Paladin."
All afternoon Monday Barb felt as though she was about to explode. She had the clothes he had requested and the idea of wearing nothing beneath them to meet him, a stranger, really, kept making her breath come in shallow drafts. She made sure she could be free of work on Tuesday night and after dinner said to Don, "Oh, by the way, I expect to be late again tomorrow night. Maybe fairly late." She had never lied to Don and now was careful not to tell him something untrue, even though she was aware this was probably a lie, or at least a misdirection, by omission.
Don looked up from the text he was studying and said, "That's OK. Actually I'll probably be a little late, too. Maybe next weekend we can try to get a little time off together. OK?"
Barb agreed and dropped the subject.
Tuesday morning she dressed for work but packed the blouse and skirt and a pair of sandals to take with her. Her level of excitement was steadily climbing even as was her apprehension over the whole episode. She realized that meeting a total stranger like this was probably crazy and maybe a little dangerous. But by now she didn't even consider not showing up. She was too involved in the "escape."
It was a warm, May day with the temperature in the upper seventies. Weather was forecast to be clear or with a few clouds and no rain anticipated. She had trouble concentrating on her work all day and when people began leaving at five she lingered at her desk, pretending to work. Everyone else was gone by six and she had said she would lock up, that she had something she was working on. In reality she was entirely too nervous to actually get any work done. Instead she jumped from one thing to another, accomplishing nothing, really. At a quarter to seven she went down the street to get some supper, but was hardly able to eat at all. She returned to the office until nearly nine. Then she finally turned off the lights and left.
She stopped in the rest room to change into the blouse and skirt. The white silk was fairly thin and clung to her every curve. She knew her nipples showed up as hard and sticking out to anyone who looked closely. The black skirt came only to mid thigh and with no panties beneath she felt practically naked. But instead of making her embarrassed and wanting to hide, the effect was to make her aroused, turned on sexually like she couldn't remember for a long time. She drove north along the river and entered the park at the edge of the city, parking her car at a small lot near the observation platform.