Last night was the office Christmas party. Like last year, the company had contracted with a taxi company to transport us.

Unlike last year, of course, there was none of the nastiness with Darrell which marred the last party for me. Everyone had a lot of fun. I was far from the only one without a date; I guess for an office function it's normal to take a spouse, but not so expected to take a partner as for most purely social functions.

I spent most of the early part of the party with Larry and Susie, who clearly are not bothering to hide their relationship anymore. I finally had to ask Susie about it.

"I thought Larry was married," I asked, as we headed to the bathroom.

"Separated," she said. "They're working on a divorce."

"I didn't know," I said.

"Yeah, well, he wasn't when we started seeing each other."

"Oh, I see."

"It was when Darrell was still here," she said. "Larry and I were working long hours trying to keep things working, then going for mammoth bitch sessions at the bar, and I guess you know how it goes..."

"Yeah, it's funny, I was thinking about Darrell earlier. He made last year's party miserable for Brian and me. I think his being here was what you'd call 'an unmitigated disaster'."

"Hey, he got Larry and me together, so he did something good."

"I hope you still think that after he's paid his lawyer and starts paying child support," I said. "No, I wish you both well, but it won't be a bed of roses."

"I know," she said.

"Darrell, though," I added, "I was worried about him when Terry fired him. He seemed to be obsessed with me, and I thought he might come after me. I'm very pleased that he left quietly."

"Yeah," said Susie, "I am too. What about the friend of yours who thumped him?"

"Jill's fine," I said, "and too far away to be in any trouble from Darrell."

"That's good," she said.

Vince and Juanita were present, and Mary must have succeeded in contacting Mel, because he arrived later. I introduced them to each other and around the software group. Mary took Mel under her wing while Vince and Juanita I left talking software with others from the group.

The party was in a side room off the main dining room / dance hall, but the doors were wide open with regular traffic to the bar and a smaller stream to dance or to watch the band (who were very good).

One of the few who trod that lesser path to the dance floor was a tall guy in full Western regalia, boots, jeans, wide belt, embroidered shirt and string tie. His hat made it hard to tell his height, but I guessed six-three to six-five. His face was thin and weathered, and what hair I could see below his hat was gray. I didn't recognize him from the office, but he seemed to know our people and he was with our party.

When I saw him standing by himself, just inside the door, I decided to say hello.

"Hi, Helen," he said, which caught me off-guard.

"Hi," I said. "I'm sorry, but I don't recognize you."

"I'm usually out of the office. I'm Dale." he gripped my hands in a firm shake. "We met when you went to BC. I manage that account."

Then I knew him from one of the planning meetings. He had been wearing a knit sweater over a shirt and tie. He had a suit jacket over the back of his chair, and I guess I just associated him with suits and ties.

"I remember, I said. "You weren't a cowboy then."

"Ah guess ah wuz in disguise," he drawled.

"Well, I said, "I saw you trying to teach that girl from accounting how to do a two step."

"Without a whole lot of success," he said. "She can't get over the 'I can't dance' block. If she did, I'm sure she'd do just fine."

"My instructor says anyone can once they've allowed themselves to believe it."

"So you dance?"

"Are you asking me if I do, or if I will?"

He grinned. "Helen, would you like to dance?"

"Sure," I said. "Then you can answer the 'if I do' question for yourself." I set my beer down and took his arm.

He was very good. Better than Charles, perhaps, at least with two step. I said as much.

"My ex-wife and I danced competition," he said. "A long time ago, now. You're pretty good yourself."

"I've been practicing," I replied. "I was hoping to bring my instructor as my date tonight. He couldn't make it, but he did give me a crash course on two step."

"Are you here with anyone else?" he asked. "I don't want to monopolize your time, if you are."

"No, I'm fine."

"Then... do you know Schottish?"

I had to admit I didn't. He taught me a little, and some Western swing, which is pretty much totally unlike swing I've been doing with Charles.

He introduced me to people in the company whom I didn't know, and I introduced him to some of the software people, whom he did know, though not well, and to our new hires, whom he didn't. A few in the first two groups commented about how we'd looked good dancing, but none of them were willing to try. There were some married couples out on the dance floor, but other than those I guess Dale was the only one who shared my interest in dancing.

The subsequent party activities included an anonymous Christmas present exchange. I unwrapped a lovely kitchen clock, but it was taken by someone else (everyone could choose a gift that had already been opened, and whoever lost their gift could choose another to open). My replacement selection was a collection of bath soaps and salts, which no-one took from me.

Dale took the clock back in his turn, but lost it later, finishing up with a large and quite ugly Christmas candle. He shrugged. "It was worth a try."

When the party games were over, we danced some more, but the beer and the exercise was tiring me out, so we talked for a while before I left. He's not quite fifty, though he's already a grandfather through one daughter, and has another daughter who's pregnant, so he'll soon have two grandchildren. He's been divorced five years now.

When I decided it was time to leave, Dale offered to find me a taxi.

"That's okay," I said, "get back to the party, I'm still sober enough to find my own."

"Okay," he said. "Thanks for dancing. You've reminded me of how much my wife and I used to enjoy it." He chuckled. "I guess that means it was a long time ago."

I squeezed his shoulder. "Thank you. I'm glad the work I did with Charles paid off. See you at work?"

Dale nodded and I left.

I hope it doesn't seem like dancing has taken over my life. That certainly isn't the case, although it's maybe a more important part than I'd expected for it to become.

The thing is, it's ubiquitous. Think about all the places you go where there's a DJ or a band, whether it's disco, Big Band, Country, or Strauss. Around here there's usually a small dance area with a C&W band. At the place where we were yesterday, it isn't small.

When Charles wasn't going to be able to go with me to last night's party, I was disappointed, because I figured I would be missing an enjoyable opportunity. But I still had him focus on Western dancing, because, like I said, it's everywhere here. And it paid off in a way that I hadn't expected. My first impression of Dale is that he's a hell of a nice guy (and much too good looking to be a grandfather :-), and I wouldn't have gotten to know him if I'd had no interest in dancing.


The weather has turned cold again. Not freezing, not yet, though it's supposed to get back down there later this week, but with a cold south wind that feels for all the world like a north wind.


Vince started today. I got him together with Juanita, whom he'd met Friday, of course, gave them a quick rundown of the company and the department, and turned them over to Mary. They both seem quite familiar with what we do, which impresses me: Juanita for the speed she's picked things up, and Vince for having gleaned so much in a short time Friday. Heck, that was supposed to be a social occasion...


There's a high, hiqh, wind from the south. It's still cold, but it's amazingly powerful for a constant, non-storm wind. I'm guessing it gusts to fifty miles per hour. It certainly makes the Miata much less stable on the freeways.

Not that I can drive very fast in the holiday traffic. It's weird, I understand why the evenings are heavy with shoppers. But why are the freeways backed up in the morning?

The wind had an odd effect this evening. It must have built during the day to the point where it stripped the remaining leaves from trees. All at once, not the gradual drop that has been going on for weeks. The air was full of leaves, everywhere, even where there were no trees. On the freeway it was like a dark snow.

Unlike snow, though, leaves don't stick to the ground, but they did accumulate close to it. So I was driving through a dancing carpet, about six inches thick, with leaves flurrying around me.


I woke up at three this morning. I couldn't figure out what woke me, and I couldn't figure out why I was so cold. It took a long time in that state to connect the two.

The house had felt cold when I went to bed last night, but I just attributed it to weather, which I guess wasn't exactly wrong, since it was probably the high wind - or last week's freeze, or both - which made my furnace fail.

I couldn't get warm enough, even with a cat crouching on my chest to keep himself warm, until I'd put on a sweater, pants and heavy socks and found myself an extra blanket.

I called Clarice this morning. She's going to let me stay with her until the furnace is fixed. Then this morning I bought a space heater from Wal-Mart. It won't do much to warm the house, but I figure I only need to warm one room for Selky while I'm gone.

I did manage to get someone to come out to fix it. There's some kind of vacuum motor seized. Not the compressor, so it shouldn't be an expensive repair, but he can't get the part delivered until Friday.

Although if it is Friday I'll be very happy. I was expecting not to have the unit fixed until after Christmas, as busy as the heating guys must be.

Juanita continues to impress me, and Mary tells me that Vince found and fixed an annoying bug, a memory leak that was causing the software to become slow. He discovered it by accident, auditing code with Juanita.

Dale said hi to me in the break room earlier, and it took a moment to recognize him in business dress. "You're in disguise again," I said.

"Sure am," he grinned. "So, are you taking things easy before Christmas?

"Far from it, I said. "With so many people out next week, I'm trying to get everything done now. And I still need to find someone to babysit the new-hires."

He frowned for just a second before saying, "Mel, Juanita, and... Vince."

"I'm impressed," I said. "I guess you're a salesman. Not Mel, though, he doesn't start for a couple of weeks yet."

"So you're taking next week off?

"Doesn't look like it, said. "I was thinking about spending Christmas in San Antone, but I don't think I'm gonna have the time."

"I'm sorry to hear it," he said.

"What about you?"

"I'm going over to my daughter's. My son's coming in from Boulder on Sunday."

"You have more than one daughter, I recall," I said.

"The other will be in Houston with my ex-wife."

"You won't be able to see them all? That's a shame."

He shrugged. "We haven't had Christmas all together in years. Seeing two kids and my granddaughter is doing pretty good for me."

Journal "continue" feature

I've been working on some changes to the script which generates the diary. Since it would be much more efficient to use the webserver's internal script processing (Apache mod_perl for web heads :-) than the external script files I use now, I've been wanting to change for efficiency. But I also want to add a new feature to the journal.

What I want to add is "continue from last entry you read". I might try to word it better than that :-) Actually, what I'd prefer is to have "next unread entry", but that's turning out to be very hard :-) The next unread entry might be on the same page, the next page, or the next year. Plus what do I do if there isn't a new entry. Dump you unceremoniously at the bottom of the page? Oh, yeah, and then after I'd convinced myself that was okay, then I realized that sometimes I add to an entry, and there would be no way to see the continuation.

Actually, it isn't "from the last entry" anyway, it's "from the last entry you read", it's "from the last entry on the page you were reading", so if you quit halfway through a page, you'll be taken back to the last entry. Because I can't write a script to read your mind to find where on the page you were :-) (My programming isn't quite that good yet :-)

One warning, though: If you see "Continue from last entry", it means you have cookies enabled. Now, most of what you'll read on the web says cookies aren't a security risk. That is not true. There are ways to use cookies to violate your personal privacy that advertisers won't tell you. The worst center on sending cookies to sites which serve embedded images (especially banner ads, but sometimes tiny invisible images which serve only as a way for servers to spy on your activity). I don't do that, and I don't host any banner ads, "adult" or otherwise, so you should be safe to have cookies enabled on my site.

But can you enable cookies here and not anywhere else? By default, under most browsers, no. You can configure your browser to ask if it's okay to accept a cookie, but since it does it for every single cookie, it's useless. Sometimes you'll click 20+ times to get a page to load. The browser's only usable if you select "always" or "never".

If you're security conscious and have cookies disabled, it wouldn't make sense to enable them here just to track my journal entries. But if you do have cookies disabled, you'll already have found that there are a huge number of web sites you just can't visit, and one or two cases where you'd really like to get the extra features that having cookies enabled gives you. In that case, there are two really good options for you: use the Mozilla Browser, although it's not completely stable yet, it's becoming better than either Netscape or Internet Explorer, or use Cookie Pal, which is a truly excellent (to be honest, in my opinion it's essential) extra for anyone running Netscape or IE. It allows you to configure cookies by site, has a sensible dialog box that has "yes/no/always/never" options for new cookies.

There's another problem with cookies, and that's that if your browser is configured to accept cookies, anyone who has access to your machine can find which sites you've visited. Cookie files have been subpoenaed, and although isn't likely to be a factor in a divorce case, other entries in your cookie file might be. So unless you know exactly who's going to have access to your machine and why, disabling cookies is a good idea.

(And, of course, it isn't only divorce lawyers who may want to know what sites you're visiting. A cookie file showing visits to on a work computer might get you fired. And it's almost certain your network admins have access to your cookie files. Ours do. I know, because I was one.)

Anyway, enough about the dangers of cookies. If you do have them enabled, you'll be able to use the "from last entry feature". Rest assured you'll never need to have cookies enabled here.


Clarice's house is warmer than mine :-) We stayed up late talking. Clarice is concerned at how few people have RSVPed to her New Year's Party invitations, since it will double as her wedding... she asked me if I was planning to bring a date. I told her it seems pretty unlikely.

Worked more on the script. I have a new version uploaded, but it shouldn't appear to be any different yet. If it causes you any problems, please report them to me.


The heating guys cancelled. With the Christmas load, they couldn't get the part delivered that they need, and they assure me it isn't in the area. So I'm afraid my house will stay cold until after Christmas.

I'm afraid San Antonio's definitely out. I'm going to have too much to deal with anyway. I'm sure Clarice wouldn't mind to feed Selky, but I hate leaving him in the cold anyway, at least I can stop by to see him when I feed him. He seems to be doing okay in the one warm room.

I did finish my script. Let me know if you do or don't like the "continue" feature.


Clarice has been great to let me stay, but I feel like I'm in the way. Don't get me wrong, I don't think she feels that I'm in the way, or Rob, but they're so busy, with Christmas, planning for Clarice's parents to come to town over New Year (I think they know something's up, but not exactly what), planning wedding-related activities... there's so much going on, and they're rushing around all the time, and trying to stop to talk to me, to keep me entertained.

Of course, I've told them not to do that, but it isn't something either of them is listening to. To them, I guess, I'm lonely and homeless, if temporarily. I almost wish I had gone away over Christmas in spite of the difficulties.

I tried to stay out of the house and out from under their feet yesterday, then in the evening I asked Clarice if I could help out by looking after Mara while she and Rob did whatever it was they had to do. I had to work hard to persuade her, because she still sees me as a guest, and not subject to doing chores... but she relented and last night and most of today I've been keeping Mara fed and changed. That seems to have helped relax her parents a little.

To add to the confusion, when I went to feed Selky this evening, there was a message on my answering machine.

"Hey, Helen." It was Dale's voice. "I got your number from the phone book, I hope you don't mind. My son's wife is sick, and he's cancelled his trip. My daughter asked if I knew anyone to bring. If you're in San Antonio, well, sorry I missed you. Otherwise, call me if you'd like to come over Christmas Day."

Well, it's tempting. I like Dale, but... going for Christmas with his daughter... no, I don't think so. I mean, I wouldn't mind getting to know him better, but his daughter is close to my age. Brian's age, anyway. And I think at least at the back of his mind is the possibility of a longer-term relationship. Maybe not so far back if he wants for me to meet his family. And I think it's highly unlikely he'd be even as accepting as Brian of what I need.

Besides, I don't date guys from the office. Brian was an exception.

Of course, with not wanting to be under Clarice's feet, it would be good to have an alternative. But on the other hand, she's a useful excuse, too. So I called Dale and explained about staying with Clarice and already having a prior commitment. I told him I appreciated his offer, and thanked him.

This evening I told Clarice about the call.

"Going back to your old ways, girl?" she said.

"What do you mean?"

"Older guys, Helen," she said. "You always did like older guys."

"Never as old as Dale," I said. She raised an eyebrow. "Oh, shit, I'd forgotten about him," I added.

"I think you did the right thing," she said, becoming more serious. "Doesn't sound like he's just looking for a horizontal hoe-down."

"Clarice, I swear, every time I think you're becoming dangerously normal, you manage to convince me I'm wrong."

"Thank God for that," she said. "I guess your brother helps me stay insane."

"Good for him."

"Sleep well," she said, and hugged me. "Merry Christmas."

"God, it's Christmas Day already, isn't it? Merry Christmas, Clarice."


It rained all day today. Constant, cold, dreary rain. One short thundershower, the rest of the time just leaky gray skies. I didn't want to get out into it this morning to check up on the house and cat, but Selky was happy to see me, and I stayed longer with the warm ball of fur than I would have done but for the rain. His room (actually, my bedroom) is staying warm enough for him.

I heard last week that it was sixty degrees below zero in Minnesota. "Cold" is relative, I guess. Our wet thirty-five would be mild.

When I returned to Clarice's, I helped her get started with Christmas dinner. She'd already opened one of the bottles of hard cider that Rob had brought for the holiday, so I helped her with that, too. She's less concerned than she was about drinking, now, though she's still careful not to overdo it.

"Besides, I'll probably be abstaining again soon," she said.

"Why's that?" I asked.

"Why do you think? We're not stopping at one kid."

"Oh, jeez." I shook my head. "I still have trouble picturing you as anything other than single and... unrestrained. In a week you'll be married with a daughter. Now you want more?"

"It's too late to back out of having a family," she said, "so we may as well have the family we want."

"How many?"

"Two more. Then Rob gets snipped."

"Three kids? You know that will mean Rob will have six?"

She shrugged. "He has good genes."

"Will you be moving?" I asked.

"We're going to start looking for a new place right after the wedding," she said, "and trying to get pregnant."

"At the same time?" I giggled. "Like, hey, thanks for showing us this house, Ms. Realtor, would you wait here a moment while we have sex?"

"How much of that cider have you had?" she asked, grinning.

"I just can't get over the idea of Clarice the family woman," I said. "It isn't you."

"It's very much me," she argued, "when it's the right family."

"You'll be my sister-in-law," I said. "That's finally sinking in. Hey, are you planning to take his name?"

"No, I'm not. We gave it to Mara, because we figured it would be easier for the kids, but I'm not changing."

"You'd have had the same last name as me."

"Why do you think I'm staying with mine?"

I laughed. "Good point."

"What are you all doing in here?" Rob asked as he came in.

"Talking about you," said Clarice.

"Your name," I offered.

"And your genes," she added.

"My jeans?" He glanced down. "I'm sure it's best I don't ask."

"You got that right, lover," said Clarice. "Now get. Helen and I have everything under control."

"We do? Now that's a scary thought."

Mara's four months old, and though she's smiling a lot she doesn't have any idea of course that she was getting gifts. She was more interested in the paper than the contents. Still, she was enjoying all the attention she received.

I gave her a small knitted Santa that I've had since I was about Mara's age. An aunt knitted it for me, and somehow I've never been able to part with it. It has survived all kinds of torture, with crayons and food (and a memorable experiment with Play-Doh), and it survived being washed after about 20 years of idleness, so I suspect it has a few more years of life as a toy yet.

Clarice had told me she was getting Rob a DVD player, so I gave him two Mel Gibson movies, "The Patriot" and "Braveheart". For herself I had bought a lambskin jacket.

Clarice gave me a black dress, which will be perfect for dancing. It has a short skirt, with a V-shaped hem and long fringe, and a spaghetti strap top, and it comes with a sheer long-sleeved jacket.

Rob must have been planning Christmas well ahead of time, because he gave me perfume from Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, "Caesars Woman". He said he'd had to get it mail order from the hotel. I tried it, and I understand why he thought it was worth the effort. It's a heavy fragrance, but not cloying, just very distinctive. Of course, Clarice and I both had to sample it... Rob said that all he needed to do was light a cigar and the room would be just like Vegas.

Christmas dinner was a success, though Clarice and I kept bumping into each other getting it ready. "Make sure the houses you look at have a bigger kitchen," I said.

"That's number two on my list. Number one is a master bedroom big enough for a king-sized bed."

"How many bedrooms?"

"Four. Three with a study will do for a while, but I'd really prefer four and a study."

"Rob's job must be paying well."

She nodded. "We're doing okay. But we may move a little further out of town where the prices are lower."

"Oh, no! Then you'll be a long drive away from me."

"And there are other advantages too," she said, with a wicked grin. "But tell me, if you were going to sell your house and move, would you buy here? You've told me how much you hate this place."

"No, I don't think I would. But further out... I have a hard enough time getting to work as it is."

"So get a new job. It would be easy for you."

"It has crossed my mind," I admitted, "especially during the days of bad weather and worse traffic."

Although Rob and Clarice had DVDs she had chosen to go with the player, we watched Braveheart first, after clearing away the Christmas meal. It's a great movie. Then Clarice relieved some of the tension with "The World is Not Enough". "Titanic" at that point would have been overkill :-)


We all have another day's holiday today, since Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday. I did get a call from the heater service guys this morning; the part definitely shipped today, and they'll be able to finish the repair tomorrow. And Selky and the house are still doing fine.

Still cold and wet. In fact, I think we're in danger of flooding now. The rain has been constant for two days. That doesn't seem much, but this isn't a light rain. A thunderstorm rolled through earlier, not to close to us, but for an hour or so the thunder didn't stop, each thunderclap would begin before the last finished. I guess it was too far away to see more than a few of the lightning strikes.

Last night I kept being woken up by the sirens of emergency vehicles. I have no idea if it was weather related or Christmas drunk drivers.

There was another message from Dale on my answering machine. He wanted to be sure his invitation hadn't offended me, and to apologize if it had. He'd had a good Christmas, and hoped I had too.

So I called him, and assured him that I was fine, and not at all offended.

"I'm flying to Houston tomorrow," he said, "to see my other daughter. But Liz insisted on giving me enough leftovers to stuff my fridge. If you'd like to come help me with them, I'd appreciate the company."

"Sure," I said, after a moment's thought. This wasn't a "meet the family" occasion, I like Dale, and I really would like to let Clarice and Rob have some time to themselves. "When would be good?"

"Three-ish?" he said. "Or whenever."

"Three sounds good," I said, and got directions to his place.


Clarice made me take a pie to add to Dale's leftovers. We'd made two apple-and-blackberry pies for Christmas, mainly as an experiment. Clarice finds conventional apple pies loaded with cinnamon too sweet after a heavy meal, but thought a pie without spices would be bland. But apple pie isn't so rich or sweet as most other desserts, so I suggested something I'd heard of... instead of using all apple, mix in some blackberries. Then skip the spices.

Clarice insisted on adding nutmeg, which I think was good, but we skipped cinnamon. Instead of sugar, we used Splenda, which is supposed to taste just like sugar (it does!) but has zero calories. You can cook with it like sugar, and it doesn't have the aftertaste of saccharin or aspartame.

The pie we ate was wonderful, but the food had been so heavy we only ate half of one, late in the evening, so we still had one and a half left. So one travelled with me to Dale's.

I arrived just after three, and presented him the pie, and a bottle of Rob's cider, which he put in the fridge. Then I helped him arrange the leftovers in his oven. He was right, there was far too much for him to eat alone. There was too much for both of us.

After the oven was loaded, and Dale had brewed coffee, we sat in his living room to talk. He had one of those fake gas fires which looks like a real wood fire. I guess I don't like them as much as the real thing, they're not as warming, and you don't get the comforting glow from the burnt logs, but they still give a nice focus to a room. I took the chair beside the fireplace while he took the sofa.

"How was your Christmas?" he asked.

"Fine," I said. "It was good, though I keep feeling that I'm imposing on my friend Clarice." I had explained by phone why I was staying with her.

"You'd have been welcome at Denise's," he said, "but I understand why you may have felt uncomfortable. It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thought for me, and I didn't realize until later how it probably seemed."

"In what way?" I asked.

"That it would seem like I was asking you out, but worse, surrounding you with my family."

"Why do you think asking me out would offend me?"

"Just the situation," he said. "Like I'd be trying to impress my daughter with my date, or showing off my family to you, as if I expected some commitment, either one I'd think would be insulting."

"And that isn't what you were thinking?"

"Never crossed my mind," he said. "I guess I could see them as possibilities, but since that wasn't what I was thinking, I didn't realize until later how it probably looked to you. I was just remembering you being stuck here with work when you'd been wanting to get away."

"You were feeling sorry for me?"

"Truth is, I was feeling sorry for me, my family scattered to the winds, and I thought you might be at a loose end, and if you had nothing better to do..."

"Yeah, I think I understand, and thanks for telling me. I did have concerns along those lines."

He nodded. "Thanks for coming over today and giving me an opportunity to explain."

"If you had asked me out," I said, "I would have said no, but wouldn't have been offended."

"Okay," he said. "It had crossed my mind. I was thinking about inviting you to dance again."

"I might do that," I said, "if that's all it is. I'm not looking for dating anyone right now, but least of all someone from work."

"Fair enough," he said. "Then I'll ask, when the right occasion presents itself."

I nodded. "How was your Christmas?" I asked.

"Other than having a frantic daughter running around panicking that nothing would be ready, after cooking food for a regiment, and not allowing her husband or me to help... pretty good. She tends to panic. Gets it from her mother."

We filled the remaining time before the food was ready with talk about his family, then I helped him get the table ready.

"Do you want the cider you brought?" he asked. "I have wine, if you prefer."

"I'd prefer the cider, I think," I said, and he took it from the fridge and served it.

"You know, I don't think we'll be able to eat a quarter of this," I commented as we sat at the table.

"Doesn't matter, at least it won't all be wasted," Dale replied.

In the end, a quarter was probably about what we managed. I stopped before I felt too full, after similar fare at Clarice's the previous day I just didn't want to eat much.

"Can we delay the pie for a time?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, and I helped him clear up the table. "I'm going to delay washing up, too."

He took his place on the couch in the living room, and I took the chair. "Thanks," I said. "Your daughter is a good cook."

"You'd never get her to believe it," he said. "Today was a welcome change from yesterday's panic and continual apologies for imperfections."

"Was your wife like that?"

"Yeah," he said. "Nothing was ever good enough. Not me, not the kids, not herself."

"The last sounds like the base of the problem."

"No shit. What about you, Helen? Were you ever married?"

"This past September. Can't you tell?" I showed him my ringless ring finger.

"Sure," he said. "It's obvious. Now, what do you mean?"

So I told him about Brian, whom he remembered him from work, and having cancelled the wedding.

"Sounds like you still have a lot of anger to lose."

"Anger?" I looked at him, surprised.

"You're still angry at him. If you don't let go of it, you're going to become bitter. Believe me, you don't want to go through life bitter."

"What is this, cowboy psychology?"

His lips made a wry grin. "Psych is a sales tool these days. But think about it. You can't change what has happened, but something's holding you back from getting beyond it. If you can forgive him, you can begin to let go of him."

I stared at him for a moment. "It isn't him I need to forgive," I said. "It's me." My eyes started to sting.

"Why is that?" he asked, softly.

"Because I can't be who he wanted me to be. Who I promised him I would be. Do you have any tissues?"

Dale leapt up and found a box of tissues from somewhere. I took a few, and started to tell him about Keith. When I got to Brian's reaction I just couldn't hold back the tears. Dale moved to sit on the arm of the chair and took my hand to comfort me. He didn't look comfortable, so I moved to the couch, and he came back and reached for my hand again, but I took his and lifted his arm over my back.

"Thanks," I snuffled, grabbing another tissue. Then I told him about the post-Brian days, how hurt I'd felt when I found out that Brian had been seeing someone else, how I'd gone looking for Chris, even though he's a jerk, just because I knew he'd make me feel good, how I'd flirted with Charles and with Laurel, and been unable to follow through...

"You're punishing yourself," said Dale. "Perhaps you're right, you're angry at yourself. You're looking for ways to hurt yourself. Now you can feel guilty about hopping into bed with an asshole like Chris, so you succeeded there, but you failed at using your friends to punish yourself, because you don't want to hurt them. So you're not completely self-destructive."

"That's a... strange interpretation," I said, blowing my nose. The tears had pretty much stopped. But I recalled drinking myself sick at Clarice's, and I couldn't fault the idea that I'd been trying to hurt myself.

"So why are you angry with yourself?"

"Because I broke my promise to him."

"Can you forgive yourself that?"

"I think so."

"What about for not changing to be what he wanted you to be? Can you forgive yourself that?"

I sat up, indignant. "Why should I...?"

"Because you still feel guilty about not being Miss Perfect for him, don't you?"

"I... do I?"

He just looked at me.

"Damn you, Dale," I said.

"Listen, Helen, of all the things you're beating yourself up about, that one you need to put off-limits. You can't be someone else to please someone else. You have to be yourself. You could choose to limit what you do, and I won't say it would have been impossible to have kept the promise you made, if you'd recognized what was involved, but you can't limit what you are. And I think until you've stopped blaming yourself for being yourself, you won't be able to forgive yourself for the rest."

I reclined against him again, resting my cheek on his shoulder. He stroked my arm.

"You'll find someone who values you for who you are, Helen," he said, softly. "But you'll be happier being yourself than being with someone who needs you to change. Be selective. Your looks are going to attract men who don't value strong, independent women. You have to hold out for one who does."

"I don't feel strong and independent right now," I said. I wiped my face with a tissue. "Nor attractive," I grinned.

"You are," he said. "All of the above, you've just been in hiding for a while." He ran a finger over my damp cheek.

I touched his face, then turned it to mine and kissed him. "Thank you," I said, and he held me tightly as I rested my head against his neck.

"You want to warm up the pie?" he asked after a time.

"In a moment," I said, and kissed him again. I slipped my hand behind his neck and held him to me as our lips moved.

As he caressed my back, I sought his tongue with mine, and he drew me closer. I ran my hands down to his waist, pulled his shirt from his jeans and stroked his bare back. His muscles were solid under his skin.

Backing away slightly, but not releasing his lips, I unfastened his shirt, running my hands over the graying hair of his chest.

Breaking away from his lips at last, I repositioned myself on the couch, and sucked his nipples, feeling him run his fingers through my hair. When I kissed his neck, he eased my blouse from my waistband, and ran his fingers over my bare back.

My heart was pounding as I began to unfasten his belt. Then I dropped what I was doing and pulled away.

"God, I'm sorry," I said. "This isn't fair to you. I need to go."

He caught my hand as I stood. Standing himself, he turned me to face him. "Helen..." he said, quietly, then held me close. I looked up, and his lips met mine again.

"This isn't going to work," I whispered, pulling back.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because you're too damn tall. Why don't we go somewhere that we're same height?"

Dale grinned, and I grabbed my purse and followed him to the bedroom, where I slipped off my shoes and blouse and lay beside him. He'd taken his shirt off, and I ran my fingers over his chest as we kissed. Then I finished unfastening his belt and let him take his pants off as I unhooked my skirt and slipped it off with my hose.

Rolling him onto his back, I lay on top of him. The press of his erection was unmistakable, but for now I was content just to have my body in contact with his.

When he unfastened my bra, I lifted a little for him to take it off, then kissed him again as his fingers on my breasts raised the sensual tension deep within me.

As I lay back down along him, his fingers slipped inside my underwear, kneading my ass, then drawing them down. I rolled off him to let him finish taking them off, and as he stroked my pussy I took a condom from my purse and opened it.

Dale peeled his Jockeys away and took them off while I unrolled the condom over his heavy shaft. Then I climbed back onto him, my palms against his chest as I lowered myself down, his cock slowly edging into me.

I stayed upright as I moved against him. He reached for my breasts, pinching my nipples between finger and thumb as we moved. Then I lowered myself down to kiss him, and our movements grew frenzied. I gasped at the strength of the feeling within me, knowing I was only moments away from orgasm. Dale moaned, and I felt his cock quaking within me. I put my hands on his shoulders and pushed myself against him, feeling him against my clit. He groaned as I kept up the pace, bringing myself higher, then he pushed me back and fastened his lips to my breast.

I wrapped my arms around his head as he sucked, and my body convulsed. The strength of my climax sent shock waves through me, and I cried out, then rolled with him as my passion grew more manageable.

"Don't tell me this was self destructive," I said, lying beside him.

"Only you know," he said.

"Nothing that good can be destructive," I said. "No, okay, I know that isn't true, but if anything, it was cathartic. It was something I wanted, something wonderful, without the trappings of 'why am I doing this?' We were close when you were comforting me. We got closer. Is there anything wrong with that?"

"Not from my perspective," he said.

"How about you, though?" I asked. "Are you okay with it? Will you be okay when I leave, or will you expect this to turn into a relationship?"

"I already told you I didn't think you were being unfair," he said.

"No, you didn't, not in so many words."

"Same thing. I think you understood." He was silent for a moment. "How's your history? The semester I started college was immediately after four students were killed at Kent State. Does that mean anything to you?"

"Yeah. Vietnam War. Were you drafted?"

"No, I got lucky. But it was a fucked-up time for everyone, especially in colleges. Our friends were dying overseas, and our heroes were dying of overdoses. We were rebelling against more than the war, we were rebelling against conventions of all kinds."

"You were a hippy?"

He grinned. "I came late to the party, but I wore the clothes, smoked the pot, got arrested at the protests..."

"And you still believe in free love, that's what you're telling me."

"I voted for Bush," he said. When I frowned at the non-sequitur, he clarified, "I don't believe in free anything. But there's enough of the rebel in me... by the time I was your age I was married with three kids, and I never did figure out how. I don't know that I could handle the lifestyle you're looking for, but I respect it. And I'll let you go being proud to have been a part of it. Tomorrow, though, I hope."

"Tomorrow," I agreed, and squeezed his hand.

"Now shall we warm up the pie?"

I shook my head and rolled off the bed. "You and your damn pie. I hope you have some ice cream." I slipped on my blouse and underwear and we went to eat.

The pie was very good, even though he didn't have any ice cream, and overnight we burned off more calories than it gave us; I think that would have been true even if we'd used sugar instead of sweetener to make it. Dale wouldn't believe that it had no sugar...

This morning, I got up early and showered for work. When I emerged, Dale told me the roads were bad, the bridges were iced and there were accidents at all of the major intersections.

"You just want to get me back in bed," I said.

"You listen to the news while I take a shower," he suggested, and by the time he was through, I was convinced, so we spent a couple of extra hours together before I left for home.

"I'd still like to invite you to dance," he said, "when the occasion presents itself."

"And I'll probably accept," I replied. "But this was a one-off, I think. I can't tell you how good I feel about it. I've felt so much less stressed out since we talked. And afterwards... grandfathers aren't supposed to know the stuff you know."

"Ex-hippy grandfathers do," he said. "I know everything will work out for you, Helen."

I had called the heating company early in the morning. They had me scheduled for service around lunch, and I arrived home in plenty of time. I don't know how I'd have managed if I had gone in to work. Selky was doing fine, of course, and I used the time in my one warm room to write this entry.

Now my furnace is working again, I can go over to Clarice's and collect the rest of my things. I'm kinda dreading explaining why I didn't return last night - though of course she'll already know why. But other than that, I think I feel more comfortable about being Brian-less than at any time since he left.

And Dale was right, Chris was a mistake. Whether I was punishing myself or just not thinking clearly, using him just because he is a jerk and is willing to be used, providing he gets laid, well, it doesn't do either of us any favors. The kind of girls Chris wants, I don't feel any better about being in their company than Clarice probably did last year, when she figured out what he was like.

On the other hand, I'm still intrigued by Laurel's advances. Maybe I didn't want to run the risk of using her, but I think my attraction to her goes beyond trying to hurt myself.

I'm glad I didn't try to make it to work today. Freezing rain moved in early evening, and the roads are a horrible mess, according to news reports. Sleet, freezing rain and snow until midnight, so they probably won't improve until noon tomorrow.


Reading over yesterdays entry, I wonder if I overreacted a little to the feeling that I skimped on details of my recent experience with Chris, and overdid the detail of my encounter with Dale to the point that it detracts from the journal.

I have to say, it probably didn't happen exactly as I described, but I can't tell you what the errors would be, because I wasn't taking notes :-) It's a little like reporting a conversation. I have a good memory, but I can't recall exactly what was said. Most of it, probably, but it isn't verbatim.

When I'm describing sex, I'll try to get the ordering of the experience right, but I'm most interested in conveying the feeling, and it's that feeling that I remember, not necessarily exactly how I arrived at it. It's probably about as accurate as the dialog I report, but if it reads like a scene in a short story, it's because that's how I know to pace an erotic scene in fiction to give the sense of the experience. Though perhaps without the embellishments that make a fictional scene more arousing. Unless they actually happened...

I called Clarice last night, because I didn't want to drive to her place in the ice. She quizzed me about Dale, after we'd talked so definitely about not getting involved with him.

"I'm not, though," I said. "He was happy with a one-night stand."

"You think?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said, "I really do. He was reliving life as a flower child."

The weather reports were way exaggerated. It got cold, and it did rain a little last night, but the roads were dry this morning, and I had no problems getting to work.

On the other hand, the weekend's forecast is horrible. Clarice called me this morning in a panic. She's worried that no-one will turn up. She's regretting the wedding being a secret.

I tried to calm her down by pointing out how unlikely the forecast was, given how badly last night's missed. I don't know how well I did.


We had a "rehearsal" today for Clarice and Rob's wedding tomorrow. It's so simple, such a short ceremony, that there really wasn't much to do, but the minister, Greg, timed everything with a stop watch. He's a cool guy, about my age, I'm guessing, from one of the smaller denominations here (well, small *here*, it's a fair-sized denomination nationally). Rob and Clarice have been going to services there lately.

He's really gotten into the spirit of the thing, and I think he's going to make a good job of it. He doesn't look like a minister (or will he be in uniform tomorrow?) with his light brown curly hair and glasses.

Brian was there, of course, and seemed cheerful for the first time that I've seen in months. We talked a little. I forgot to bring him his Christmas present :-(

After the rehearsal, we went out to eat. There was just Rob, Clarice, her family, Brian and me. I've met Clarice's family before, and they were happy to see me, and seem very pleased with their son-in-law-elect.

Clarice's little sister Alyssa was flirting fairly blatantly with Brian. She must be about twenty-three now, and is like a laid-back version of Clarice. She has her coloring, although with straight hair halfway down her back, with a fuller bust, which was more noticeable with her tight, thin sweater, but without Clarice's acidity. She has a softer voice and superficially more gentle manner.

Brian didn't seem interested, though, or else he masked his interest being polite. With his own admitted attraction to Clarice, I'd have thought a younger version of her would have been someone he'd have found interesting. Maybe he's still feeling uncertain in my company, but he seemed pretty relaxed.


Clarice may have had a point about the weather affecting her wedding. Of all the days... it started snowing this morning. I had to go to the grocery, and I almost didn't make it. The Miata's been surprisingly good (this is snow, not ice, at least), but pickup trucks and minivans are having a hell of a time getting over the hills (or the shallow rises that pass for hills here).

The freeway was okay. Maybe the roads will be driveable this evening.

I finally got chance to answer some of my email. I still have a lot to go... maybe next year :-)

Well, time to get ready to go to the party. See you all next year, and a happy New Year to all!