Landing reversed the sequence of events we experienced upon take-off - with the added thrill of having the basket nearly tip over as we bumped to a stop. During this process Richard and I managed to stay upright by bracing ourselves together, each of us, wrapping one arm around the other and grabbing the rim of the gondola with our free hands.
"Woo-hoo!" Richard shouted, vaulting over the rim once we came to rest. "That was a…"
As he left the basket, we lurched upward, leaving him scrambling after one of the hold-down ropes. Leesa pulled a cord and we dropped back to ground. This time, the balloon's envelope continued to collapse down and away from us.
"And that, Mr. Leonard, is why we wait until the balloon has fully settled before springing out," she said in what I thought was a rather prim tone.
"Sorry, just got a bit carried away with that landing. Won't happen again."
"Why do I find it so hard to believe you?" I asked, smiling to make it a joke. Turning to our pilot, I said, "Not having known him for very long, I can't be sure, but I think my friend has few problems with keeping in touch with his Inner Child. And I like that."
I let Richard help me out of the basket. By this time our ground crew had made it through the gate onto the field and were fast approaching. Richard and I watched as our balloon metamorphosed from a vast blue cone decorated with vivid grapes to a rather rumpled and odd carpet over the remains of the field in which we stood. I suppose I should have taken pictures, yet I chose to not include this in either my pictures or my memory, yielding instead to my desire to consider my adventure still ongoing.
Instead, I leaned against him, pressed into his side, snuggled into his warmth. He responded by wrapping his arm around me, enfolding me with his presence. Chills of anticipation warred across me with his heat. At that point, I chose to plan how the rest of our day would go. One opening, that's what I looked forward to. We would go to San Francisco, first to Golden Gate Bridge. Following that, we would work our way to a quiet, secluded restaurant, far from Fisherman's Wharf and thus less crowded. Finally, should everything be right, we would take a room at the St. Regis.
The crew busied itself with the task of folding the envelope, loading the basket onto it's transport trailer. Leesa walked over to us, carrying a small basket. "Here's the rest of the meal and the two bottles of wine you opened. You might like them for a picnic lunch before you leave for home. Let's get you in and we'll head back to the park."
The trip back to our car took far less time than our flight. Inside of twenty minutes we had arrived.
"Thank you for flying with Napa Balloon Adventures," Leesa told us as she walked us to our car. "Please, feel free to come back for another flight. As we never know exactly where the winds will take us or the weather, each trip is unique."
"I believe I speak for both of us that it was a grand trip," Richard replied.
"And I won't hesitate to recommend your trips to my friends," I said.
"It's always a pleasure to hear that. Have a great rest of the day." With that, she got back into her vehicle and drove away.
"Do you think we…"
"You first," he said. "After all, I arranged this for you." He stopped at the trunk and proceeded to place our 'lunch' within.
"Then, I'd like to head over to the Golden Gate Bridge. This is such a beautiful day and it would be a great place to finish our picnic."
"Your wish is my comm…" At that point, his cell phone chirped. And chirped again. "Hold on," he said, glancing at the number displayed, "I have to answer this. Yes? Are you sure? Well, have you tried… I see." Yet again I felt a disconnect listening to just one half of a phone conversation. "Couldn't Howard handle this? He's where? No, if his son had to go to the hospital, we can't expect him to come in. I'll be there, but I'm down in Napa so I'll be a while getting there. I'll see you in about two hours. Goodbye." He looked back to me, exasperation and disappointment writ large across it, with a hint of… disgust, I thought.
"It's okay," I said, "While I can't say I've had similar situations working for County, my friends have complained often enough about such derailments to their plans."
"Thank you. Perhaps you would find time tomorrow or next week when we could follow through with a visit to the Bay?" He held the my door open for me and then paused, waiting for my response.
"Not tomorrow. I've chores to do. However, I see no reason we cannot just pick right up where we're leaving off next Saturday, assuming of course your problem is tamed by then."
"Saturday it is."
With that, we struck out for home. I was frustrated enough by the interruption that I only managed to make small talk during the journey. I wasn't sure when it had happened, but I knew that sometime during the morning, Richard and I had begun to form a bond. The attraction I felt had deepened beyond mere desire to be close to his looks, his voice, his scent. Planned or not, I wanted, needed, more from him than just an occasional 'Hello', casual wave or friendly meeting for a drink after work.
Thus, little of our conversation during the trip home stayed with me. Only as we pulled in front of my home and he walked me to my door did it sink in what Richard was saying.
"Again, I apologize for cutting our date short. I want you to know, I had hoped we would have been able to spend the entire day together." I could hear the wistful regret in his voice. "You are an enchanting woman, Elaine. I believe we are well on the way to being friends and I hope it isn't too forward of me to tell you I would like for us to be more than friends." With those words, my funk disappeared and I felt the flush of pleasure mixed with embarrassment rise.
"Richard," I replied, leaning into him, "you echo only what I want."
"Good," he breathed. With that, he wrapped me in his arms and pressed his warm lips to mine.
I'm sure no more than a few seconds passed, yet when we broke apart, I was out of breath and none too steady on my feet. Thankfully, he still held me close. He heaved a sigh, redolent with regret, yet, in some inescapable way, singing with eager anticipation. I quivered against his chest.
"You should be going," I said, quite sure he shouldn't. "You promised them you'd be there in two hours."
"Yes, I did. Strange how easy it was, just now, to forget that minor detail." He did not release me, and I did not regret his inaction. "Perhaps…" Leaving the rest unsaid, he responded to my desire and, once again, drank deep from the well of my desire.
This time, I deigned to believe myself ready. Maybe I was. I remembered tasting the remnants of the wine on his lips, the savor of his mouth. I heard, or rather, felt a deepening rhythm. Almost it seemed to course through me. After unmeasured minutes I realized I was feeling his hearts. No, our hearts, beating in time. He shifted the slightest bit, presenting more of himself to me and I gladly molded myself tighter.
"Ahem!" Jimmie's voice sounded in my ear. We sprang apart, I blushed deep. "Not wanting to interrupt such delicate negotiations, but I just received a call from your office, wondering if you might be here." One eyebrow askew, his glance queried Richard.
"Ummm… Yes. I did leave your number where they might reach me. But I can't figure out why they didn't just call me?" He pulled out his cell, looked at it and grimaced. "That's why. I must have turned it off before getting in the car. I better go."
"Do you have to?" I widened my eyes and gave him both my best 'come hither' and 'sad puppy' looks.
"Yes, I must. If I don't I won't be able to complete our date next Saturday. Unless you are willing to support me as a 'kept man' after I lose my job?"
"No, that wouldn't do. I'm a very traditional girl. I expect the man to keep me. So, I guess you'd better go," I said. Richard glanced toward Jimmie, with clear intent to say something further.
"Don't look at me for help. I already caught an earful from you co-workers. You'd think the sky was falling or something. But don't worry, I’m sure Elaine will be perfectly happy to mope, dope and grump around all week until you next grace our happy home. When she's not busy chatterboxing about your date. Shoo! Shoo! The sooner you go and pull their chestnuts from the fire, the sooner you both shall meet again."
Richard guffawed. "All right. I can't ask for more than that. But don't believe but half of what she tells you." With that, he bounded down the steps and out to his car. He waved just before he climbed in and drove off.
Jimmie dragged me inside as if I were nothing more than an extra-large Raggedy-Ann doll. Closing the door behind us, he pulled me to the living room and plopped down on our sofa. I had no choice but to collapse beside him.
"C'mon. Spill girl!" he said. "Gimme details! Where did you go? What did you do? Was it fun? Did he kiss you? No, wait, I already saw he kissed you. What did you talk about?"
Sometimes it was quite easy for me to see Jimmie as a gay person. None of my straight male friends would ever be so willing to share such personal details. Alan would have chewed off his hand to escape this kind of conversation. And yet, I did not feel Richard would have been turned off by it. Jimmie, on the other hand, lived for such activity. It helped cement our friendship.
"Napa. Balloon. Yes. Yes, but not 'til later. Everything and nothing." I replied. "There you have it in all it's gory detail. May I go now and put away this food?" I pointed to the basket they had given us after our flight. Somehow, I had managed to hang onto it when Jimmie raced us inside.
"What food? Where'd you get it? What kind of food? And just what do you mean by 'Napa' and 'Balloon'? Surely you're not trying to tell me you took a balloon trip in Napa?" He scowled at me. "And stop with the monosyllable answers. Give details or Mama Jimmie's not gonna help you put away the food."
With that, he bounced off the sofa, grabbed the basket from my hand and flounced to the kitchen.
"EEK!" erupted from the kitchen before I could get there. "Frog's Leap wine? Artisnal bread? And is this some California Bleu Cheese? Just what kind of balloon trip did you go on, anyway!" he demanded.
By this time I was in the kitchen and could appreciate his stance, feet spread slightly, head cocked to the left, one fist resting on his hip while the other wagged a finger at me. "Didn't I warn you about accepting drinks from strange men? Do I need to ground you, young missy?"
"No, for by that time he was no stranger," I said, serene in the truth. "And he was a perfect gentleman. Erudite, well-mannered and well-spoken, interesting, quite willing to please. Gawd, Jimmie. I sound just like a romance novel!" I laughed.
"You know, I believe you do. So tell me miss 'I am such a hussy I'll kiss strange men on my doorstep', is this the 'real thing'?"
I sighed. "I don't know, Jimmie. I really don't know. But I do know I like what I've seen of him so far. He is quite charming and it was fun spending time with him. I was so mad when he got called back to work."
"Was it 'let's do lunch' fun or 'let's take in a movie and dinner' fun."
"More like, 'let's take in dinner and a room at the St. Regis' fun."
"No way! No wonder you were mad about him being called in to work. I think I would have pulled out all the stops, kisses and more, to keep that level of fun going."
With that, my barriers burst and I launched into recounting my entire morning. It was a relief, Jimmie had so much more experience at starting and nurturing relationships than I. What I was feeling and the signals I thought I was getting from Richard appeared to be real, but I wasn't sure. After all, I'd hooked up with Alan. Thank God I hadn't married him.
By evening we had hashed over every word he'd said and analyzed every move he had taken. Jimmie and I had evolved a plan guaranteed, or so Jimmie promised, to woo Richard into my arms, and if I wished, into bed. As I drifted to sleep, I couldn't help but wonder what my parents would have thought for they had done their best to teach me to be proper and reserved, to save myself for my 'one true love'.
Sunday, I awoke long before the Sun could sneak into my room. Feeling extra-special, I gave myself permission to take a long soak bath, complete with my favorite coconut-scented bath beads and four cinnamon candles, one on each corner of the tub. While I've always preferred to be clean before slipping into bed, I reserved lazing away in a comfortable, blood-warm bath, letting myself be soothed by the scented oils, plying soft bubbles along my skin for those times I most wanted to be pampered. After almost a half hour of playing, relaxing and soaking, I pulled myself away to dress for the day. Yes, we had chores scheduled, but after yesterday, I felt compelled to toss off every chore which could wait a few days. Time for a 'girls day out'.
And that meant shopping which called for simple, easy-to-remove clothing. There's no hassle quite as great as struggling to put on and remove too many layers of tight clothing every time we changed stores. I had the perfect outfit, classic black jeans and a short, short tank top with a men's cut chambray shirt, which I tied off, leaving my midriff exposed. Damn. I looked fine. I almost finished with my favorite pair of boots, then I remembered where I was going, so I grabbed my black pair of buckle-strap step-ins. Perfect.
Strolling down the hall to our kitchen, I rapped on Jimmie's door. "Shake a leg, sleepyhead. The day's a-wastin'," I said.
"What? Are you already up? Why so…" For once I'd caught him slow on the uptake. He had almost finished three complete sentences before he noticed what I was wearing. Life was good, today. "Okay. We're obviously not going to do all our chores today," he said to my receding backside. "Guess not."
By the time I had polished off a granola bar and a breakfast energy drink, he'd finished dressing and arrived in the kitchen. I tossed one each over to him as he sat down. "Here's the plan…" I started to say.
"Wait a sec." He sniffed, then broke into a grin. "Do I smell coconut? And cinnamon? Oh, girl, you have been up a while. Wish I'd thought to get me a soak."
"We can't all be sparkly morning people. Some of us need our beauty sleep and have to play slug-a-bed."
"Girl, you are cruisin'. Who taught you to mouth off like that?"
"You did. Anyway, wrap your head around a 'girls day out'. Sound good?"
"It sounds fantabulous. We could get our nails done, drool all over the latest fashions, maybe even take in a movie."
"Maybe. However, to make this work, we'll have to at least get the bills paid and shove some clothes through the washer. But we can pay bills tonight and split the clothes between before and after."
"I like that plan. Let's do it."
With that we headed back to sort out between do first and do last clothes. Jimmie's the one man I know who gets that some colors need cold and others can take warm washing. And he's always washed underwear last. Still, as we met by the washer I checked over his load. For all his care, he has missed, putting red socks in with several blue items. How anyone can not see red in an armload of blue is beyond me.
"No reds?" I asked. He shook his head. "What about creams?" I could see most were some shade of blue, black or dark gray, although he had a forest green jogging outfit in his load. We were good to go.
What with the several loads of laundry and checking over yesterday's mail, we didn't leave until almost noon. Primed for fun, we piled out of Jimmie's car and into Downtown Plaza.