All About Chemistry
See part 1 for long, long headers.
The first date was fine. It was nice. We managed to find things to say to each other, enough to prevent awkward silences. She said that she and her girlfriend were taking a break or keeping their options open or something that she didn't really understand but which translated to broken up. She said it had been one of those relationships where no one is really happy, but it dragged along anyway. She said it helped to be out with someone else.
Still, it was nothing special until I offered to walk Kerry up to her apartment. In the otherwise empty elevator, we kissed so passionately that it took us a moment to notice that we'd reached Kerry's floor. I leaned against the Door Open button until the elevator buzzed in protest. Kerry slipped through the closing doors, and I was descending back to the lobby before I could know whether Kerry would have invited me in. Not sure what to do, and not even sure which seventeenth-floor apartment was Kerry's, I went home. I called the next day, prepared to apologize, but Kerry just invited me over for dinner.
"I don't even know why you want me here," I said when I sat down at Kerry's dinner table.
"I'm trying not to look a gift horse in the mouth," Kerry said.
"What do you mean?"
"When I first... realized I might be gay, I was going back through my life, trying to figure out if I'd been attracted to women before and not-- not thought of it that way at the time. You were the first person I thought of."
"Like-- back when you were chief resident?"
"Oh, God. When I came back, it must have been..."
"Kind of jarring."
I pushed bits of salad around with my fork. "You-- you were in love with me all that time?"
"I was in something," Kerry said. "I think 'love' is pushing it."
When we'd finished dessert, I leaned across the table to kiss Kerry. Kerry kissed me back until I thought we might both fall forward into the remains of dinner. I came around the table to continue the kiss. I stroked one of Kerry's breasts through her blouse; the nipple hardened under my fingers.
We fumbled our way to Kerry's bedroom and tumbled onto the bed. Kerry leaned her crutch carefully against the nightstand. "You've never done this before, have you?" Kerry said, running her hands under my shirt.
"With a woman."
"Relax. I'll... go slow." Kerry shrugged me out of my shirt and unfastened my bra. If this was slow, I wanted to see fast. But I liked the way Kerry caressed my breasts with firm lips, teased my nipples with a strong tongue. Unable to see to unbutton Kerry's blouse, I rode it up instead, then traced a finger down her spine. I could feel Kerry shudder with unexpected pleasure. Kerry circled my hipbones with her fingers. "You've got to tell me if it's... working," she said from between my breasts.
"It's working," I said impatiently. Kerry unzipped my pants and slipped her hand under the waistband of my underwear. She pressed her thumb where the lips of my vulva joined, and I let out a moan.
"Keep doing that," Kerry said.
"Doing... what?" I gasped.
"You're too quiet. Don't back down from me."
"Don't say 'okay,'" Kerry said. "Do it."
I was about to say, "Okay," again, but I thought better of it. "Don't stop," I said instead.
"Wait-- I ought to-- there's Saran Wrap in the kitchen--"
"You're kidding, right?"
"No-- I-- never mind."
I leaned upward to kiss Kerry gently. "'Sokay." I played with the top button of Kerry's shirt. "You've got too many clothes on," I said.
"What am I going to see that you don't want me to see?"
"No-- I-- I wanted to... I wanted to go down on you first," Kerry said.
"I-- okay. I'm sorry. I assumed you..." I was unbuttoning Kerry's blouse. I slid my fingers under one of Kerry's bra straps and trailed the strap down Kerry's arm. I kissed Kerry's bare shoulder. "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize. Just let me..." Kerry flicked my clit with her fingers, and I was happy to kick off my pants, wriggle out of my underwear, and let Kerry take over.
I'd been eaten out before, of course, but always as kind of an afterthought: grudgingly, as part of boyfriendly duty, or as half-assed repayment for blow jobs. Which is not to say that I was one of those women who lay back numbly and waited for it to be over. I loved it. I came stronger and harder that way, with the stroke of a tongue, however inept, across my clitoris. My freshman year of college, when I first figured this out, I was so into the idea of cunnilingus that I developed a reputation in my dorm. I would fuck any guy who went down on me first. Sadly, this probably hampered my social life.
And it's easy to say that with Kerry it was different, for obvious reasons of anatomy. But tongues are tongues, and when you're on your back with your eyes vised shut and your knees in the air, gender makes a lot less difference than you'd expect. No, it was different and better with her because she'd wanted it so much and for so long. Because it was clear to me that she'd lain in bed after long shifts and wondered what I tasted like.
Kerry had one hand under my tailbone, tilting me upward. She started out with long upward strokes from my vaginal opening to the tip of my clitoris, and after a few she started curling her tongue around at the end and sucking on my clit. I kept talking, mostly things like "that's good" and "keep going," because I was afraid that she'd stop if I got quiet. She found a sweet spot in that shallow place between my inner labia. When I came, she was rolling her tongue in there, pressing hard and deep, just on the good side of hurting me. And coming was almost a disappointment, because I knew she'd stop when the orgasm subsided.
She didn't quite: she gave me a few decelerating licks while my body calmed. "I'd go again," she said, "but I think you wore out my jaw."
"Let me kiss it out of you," I said, and I kissed her until she seemed restless, ready for her turn. "I don't know what to do," I said.
"Just... wing it."
"See one, do one, teach one," I said, and she laughed.
She seemed reluctant to let me undress her. I could understand why, but she was going to have to let me at her eventually. It was dim enough in the room that I wouldn't be able to see her body clearly anyway. But if anyone had a reason to be self-conscious, it was a woman who had made a game of hiding the nature of a very obvious disability. It reminded me of something Chloe liked to say: when you tell one person, it isn't a secret anymore.
My own uncertainty gave me an excuse to spend a long time on her upper body. Her bra had gone slack on her arms, and it more or less fell away when I unhooked it in the back. Kerry had a swimmer's body, all muscle from the wide V of her trapezius through to her flat abdominals. When I kissed her sternum, the skin was soft, like it might turn to powder. I wanted to taste as much of her as I could. I wanted her to trust me.
I was running my tongue along her belly, and she said, "I like this. Nobody ever does this." I wasn't sure that she'd intended for me to hear her. In any case, my mouth was busy, and she'd just asked me not to stop. I was doing something right. I could do this.
I slipped my hand down the front of her pants, my face still buried in her ribcage. In the curls of her pubic hair I could feel that she was damp. I must have frozen, because she asked me if I wanted her to walk me through it. Like it was a procedure. I laughed and said yes.
I helped her out of the rest of her clothes. She propped her back against the headboard at an angle. I started at her belly, where I'd been before, and I traced her lower abdomen with kisses. These were the things that I had not expected to be different: texture, flavor, the easy topography of curves. She guided me downward with her hands on my shoulders. I found her clitoris with my tongue, and after that it was mostly corrections: harder, faster, a little to the left. I thought that I was disappointing her. "Sorry," I said.
"Don't apologize," she said. "Don't you ever apologize to me." I realized that she was breathing hard with arousal. She was pressed so hard against me that I couldn't have wrestled free from her. I stroked her clit with my tongue, and I didn't hear any more complaints, just rhythmic and escalating sighs until she came.
"It's your fault anyway," I told Abby over another uninspiring cafeteria lunch.
"My fault?" Abby said.
"The whole chemistry thing. Remember?"
"You acted on it."
"Wouldn't have if you hadn't put the idea in my head," I said.
"You forced it out of me."
"You brought it up."
Abby knew when she was beaten. "So how long has this... thing been going on? A month?"
"A little more than that," I said.
"That makes her your girlfriend."
"She's not my-- I mean, we barely even talk. I'm not even sure if we like each other."
"But you've been sleeping together for a month."
"And you haven't slept with anyone else while you've been sleeping with her."
"No," I said.
"If you've been fucking someone for a month, and in that time you've been monogamous, it's a relationship, whether you like it or not."
"What is that? The 'one month rule'?"
"Not a rule," Abby said. "More of a philosophy."
"That's too bad. I was starting to believe in your rules."
"You mean you..."
"We had sex on the second date," I said.
"Nope. Second date rule."
"I'm not sure it should count if you're..."
"Why not? Chemistry is chemistry," I said with a burst of conviction.
"So... there was chemistry."
"Fireworks," I grinned.
"So what's the problem? I mean, aside from the fact that it's Weaver and we're all going to make fun of you forever."
"Nobody is going to make fun of me, because nobody is going to know."
Abby looked at me seriously for a moment. "All right," she said.
"She'd kill me if she knew I told you."
"All right," Abby said. "So... what's the problem?"
"We don't even talk to each other. There weren't really any dates after the second one. We get together, and then we..."
"Fuck," Abby finished.
"And eventually it's going to get old, and we're going to start to hate each other. Which we can't, because we work together. And..." I paused. "Because I don't want to hate her."
"So stick with it until it's starting to get weird, and then break it off," Abby said.
"I'm not there yet," I said. For the time being, I was enjoying it. Kerry made the future impossible to think about. When I was with her, there were only the heat of touch and the high of orgasm, and when we had sex I knew that we were both shoving the consequences from our minds. Kerry was smart enough to have played over our crash-and-burn ending in her mind. We had an unspoken agreement not to talk about where this was going. That should have filled me with fear, but I loved having her only in the moment: taking in her hands and her tongue like I could have them forever. I wanted her too much to start to resent her. I wanted her too much to let her go.
Two: Exothermic Reactions
"We need to break this off," Susan was saying, like she'd been rehearsing it in front of the mirror for days. "We need to. Before we start hating each other. Because I don't want that, and I don't think you want that either."
We were in an empty exam room in the middle of a slow shift. Susan had apparently decided to dump me in a way that would make us both as irritable and distracted as possible for the rest of the day. I guessed that now that she'd gotten tired of me and whatever experiment I represented for her, it didn't matter to her who knew about us.
"You're right," I said, because she was.
She looked at me skeptically. "Are you sure?" she said. "Are you sure this is all right with you?"
"It was going to have to end sooner or later."
"Friends?" I suggested.
"Sounds good to me," she said.
She laughed loosely. "That was way too easy." But we were still standing there. She'd taken my hands in hers when she'd started talking, and our hands were still clasped. It had been easy, except for one inconvenient fact: we worked together. In a normal relationship, we'd have been able to walk out of that room and never see each other again.
She dropped my hands and raised her own to brush my cheek. "So what do you say?" she said. "One last time?"
"Maybe we shouldn't..."
"You know, we never had sex at work?"
"There was a reason for that," I said.
"Not a very good one." She kissed me, a little roughly. I knew that if I wanted, I could push her away and tell her that the end was the end, but the truth was, I couldn't resist her that easily. And I didn't want this to be the end. I didn't want to go into this knowing that after this afternoon, I wouldn't get to have sex with her again. It didn't seem fair somehow. Whatever our differences of personality, we seemed to fit together perfectly while we were fucking.
We both climbed onto an exam bed. Susan had to help me up, and as she did she slid her hands under my shirt. Usually, by the time we got to foreplay, I was already wet with the thought of what I wanted to do to her. But that day my mind hadn't gone there beforehand, and I was distracted by the fear that someone would walk in on us. I had never felt safe with Susan; then, I felt outright paranoid.
She said to me what I'd said to her the first time we slept together: "Relax." She kissed my neck softly. "Or do you not want to do this? Should we just... leave it here?"
"I... I don't know," I said.
"Kerry," she said. Not a question, but a command.
"I want you to know-- I want you to know how much I'm going to miss this. You opened me up. I will not regret a second we had together."
"Me neither," I said.
"But I'm not in love with you, and I don't think I can be. And I think we both... deserve better than that."
"Do we?" I said.
"You do," she said, and she kissed me.
"Then so do you." I kissed her back. "You know, I bet there's some KY in one of those drawers."
She told me to stay where I was while she looked. I hated being left useless like that, even when it was simply a situation in which no one needed my help. I pulled my knees to my chest, pleased to find that it was one of the days when I could. A sharp pain shot down from my hipbone to the inside of my knee, but I held the position, fighting it. I knew I was setting myself up to be sore for the rest of the day.
Susan hopped back up onto the exam bed with the tube of KY in her hand. "You look so small," she said, and I let go of my knees. She said, "Let's come together, if this is going to be the last time."
We half-undressed quickly. There was no point in taking off our shirts when we might have to get our clothes back on in a hurry. She put her hand on my ass and guided me on top of her. Susan seemed to like that I was lighter than she was, that she could cover herself up in me without relying on my strength to keep her uncrushed. I think it made her feel powerful, even with my one hand pressing her shoulder down and the other, sticky with superfluous lubricant, stroking her clit hard. She kept her left hand at my hip so that the joint wouldn't buckle. She already had one finger inside me, moving rhythmically while she rubbed my clit with her thumb. I wanted to get my fist inside her and fuck her so hard that she'd feel me for the rest of the day. But time was not a luxury we had, and it still took a long time to get her relaxed enough for that. We settled for three fingers each. I found the rough spot high inside of her, and she writhed against me. I was biting my lip to keep myself quiet. This place demanded silence, and I began to resent that. I wanted Susan free to scream and moan and beg me not to stop. When I came, she couldn't tell because I kept quiet and she was close. I let her keep going until after her own climax. I wanted her soft hands inside me a little longer.
She started putting her clothes on without a word. I told her that I was going to need a minute for my leg. "Yeah," she said. "We probably shouldn't walk out together anyway." I watched her hips swing as she headed towards the door. I wanted to grab her and stop her; I wanted to tell her that I wasn't ready for her to go yet. But I wasn't that brave, and I told myself that it would only have made things worse.
I must have looked like a wreck all that day, because Carter stopped me at the end of the day shift and asked me what was going on.
"Nothing," I told him. "I'm fine."
"No, you're not," he said, "and why won't you ever tell me anything anymore?"
"Because telling you anything is like sending out a memo to the entire hospital."
"I wouldn't do that to you," he said.
"Yeah, well, you do it to everyone else."
"I wouldn't do it to you," he said. "Not if it would hurt you."
I made a show of rummaging in my locker.
"Kerry. I know that you can't sleep with the door open. I know that the can opener goes in the knife drawer. I know that you've seen 'The Sound of Music' three dozen times, and you still cry when Captain Von Trapp sings 'Edelweiss.' And I had to find out you were gay when Chuny told me you'd kissed some woman in front of the admit desk! How is that fair, Kerry?"
I looked up at him, and for the first time in too long, he was John who read bad science fiction novels, who crammed quarts of 2% milk into the fridge and drank straight out of them, who warbled U2 songs in the shower. And I realized that I missed that person. I'd gotten into a bad habit of letting my friendships slacken, maybe as a result of watching Jeanie get so sick and having to remind Gabe who I was. I had one college friend left, and he lived out in California. My contact with Carol Hathaway had been reduced to yearly Christmas cards, and I never seemed to get around to answering Mlungisi's letters. I was letting the same thing happen with John, who was right there and healthy. And although I knew why I'd been keeping my distance, it no longer seemed like a reasonable excuse.
"It's not fair," I said to him.
"Well, we can agree on that," he said.
"But you know--"
"No, Kerry. That was you. I wasn't going to let it get in the way."
"Yeah, it's easy for you, isn't it? Fuck all the women you want, and--"
"It wasn't like that," he said. "You know it wasn't like that."
"It was just... I was afraid that if..."
"I know," he said. "But don't you think... we're out of the woods now?"
"Why? Because of Abby?"
"Well, that, and because you..."
"I-- I should have told you," I said. "I guess... I wasn't really ready to tell anyone yet. Not even when... Sandy ambushed me. She was angry that I wasn't out. I was going to... take things at my own pace, and it just... didn't work out that way."
"I'm sorry," he said.
"That she hurt you," he said.
"I got over it," I said.
"Are you hungry?"
"Have you eaten dinner?" he said. " I was thinking we could... talk for a while."
"I was-- I've got leftovers, and--"
"Just-- just across the street. Doc Magoo's."
"I kind of... avoid that place," I said. "Bad associations."
He nodded in understanding. "We could go to that Thai place across the street from the Art Institute."
I knew that he would keep trying until I said yes, so I agreed and got it over with. When we got to the restaurant, John informed me that I wasn't leaving until I told him everything.
"How are you going to keep me here?" I asked him.
"I'll take your crutch," he said. "I'll hide it in the men's room." I wouldn't have put it past him.
He didn't lecture me when I ordered a beer. I half-expected him to chastise me for self-medicating. I knew that was something I did, and I knew that was what I was doing. I was encouraging myself to talk. Maybe he understood that.
We chatted about work for a while: traded stories of goofy cases and med student mishaps. We had a passive-aggressive argument about who had the rights to the last segment of spring roll. ("No, really, you can have it." "No, I'm not even that hungry.") By the time the main course arrived, he was shooting me looks like he was worried we'd be there all night.
Sometime while we were attacking the pad thai and the panang chicken, I started talking. I told him about Kim: about getting kissed on Christmas Eve and lying awake the rest of the night, re-evaluating my whole life to make sense of that kiss. I told him about nights spent sitting in dyke bars, too shy to strike up a conversation with anyone, and about Sandy, who had forced me to be brave. And I told him about Susan.
"So you slept with her?"
"I can't believe you slept with my ex-girlfriend," he said.
"It had-- it had nothing to do with you."
"I know," he said.
"If I'd known you were still--"
"No," he said. "We were never really more than friends anyway. Friends who kissed."
"You have a lot of restraint," I said.
He shrugged. "No chemistry."
"Yeah, well, we didn't have that problem."
"So why'd you break up?"
"We both knew it wasn't going to last," I said. "Susan wanted to break it off while we could still be friends."
"Part of me was willing to keep going until we hated each other."
"I know the feeling," John said.
"But we're better off," I said. "It's better that we don't."
"Hate each other?"
"Speaking from experience?"
"I never hated you," I said.
"No, but you--"
"You did it too," I said. "You always acted like you were ashamed to have any kind of a relationship with me."
"I-- I had no idea," he said. "I had no idea I made you feel like that."
"I never said anything."
"Which of course..."
"Was the problem all along," I said.
"So you'll talk to me from now on?"
"If you promise to listen," I said.
We split the check, then spent an embarrassing fifteen minutes wandering the neighborhood looking for his car. When he dropped me off at my building, he got out of the car and gave me a long hug.
"Was that your brother?" the doorman asked when John had left.
"No," I said. "Just a friend. We... hadn't talked in a while."
Susan and I were only cordial at first. There is a tension that lingers after any passionate relationship ends. But those wounds faded quickly, and we started spending time together as friends: grabbing lunch for each other at work, showing up at Zorba's in the wee hours in the hopes that the other would be there. Women who work hard and live mostly alone have a certain sorority. Resisting the urge to climb all over each other, Susan and I found that connection.
And so Susan and I were getting along well, and John and I were having the kind of friendship that involved actually speaking to each other, and Susan and John, who had no chemistry as lovers, were so natural around each other as friends that it was easy to see how they might have gotten confused. And because Abby was more or less involved with John, not to mention friends with Susan, she was suddenly a lot nicer. And through Abby, and because we'd always liked each other anyway, Luka was warmer towards me. It was a strange feeling, having people on my side this way. I'd always told myself that I was better off not trying too hard to make friends, that I would get more done if I didn't concern myself with whether people liked me. I still believed that, but I liked feeling like it wasn't me against the world. It was nice to be part of the conversations in the doctor's lounge, and actually understanding the constant inside jokes made them less grating. I hadn't intended to change the way I administrated, but that happened, too: I found myself spending more time asking for opinions, and I found that more of the staff offered those opinions. Work had, for a long time, been something I enjoyed in theory but not in the everyday succession of conflicts. Now, even on the days when everything went to shit and I was yelling my head off, it was a retreat.
I was glad to have somewhere to go, because the rest of my life was throwing me curves. Gabe was getting worse: losing his temper violently, having toilet accidents, wandering off and getting lost in his son's neighborhood. His son called me somberly to tell me that Gabe's care had become too much for him. I helped move Gabe into the nursing home while Gabe shouted abuse and called me by his sister's name. I was reminding myself why I couldn't give up on him when, looking thin and ancient as he sat on the hospital bed in his new room, he said, "You're Kerry, aren't you? Of course you're Kerry. I don't know why I thought you were Barbara. I'm sorry."
"It's all right," I said.
"Have you decided on a specialty yet?" he said. "You know, I always thought you'd make a great ER doc."
When I went home, I fried all the chicken in my freezer. Then, too upset to eat any of it, I cried all night.