All About Chemistry
Want headers? See part 1.
A few days later, I brought my computer to Zorba's in the hopes that I could write a few things out of my system. At home, the blistering whiteness of a new text file had been too much for me. I'd started getting e-mails from people who regularly read my journal, asking why I hadn't updated in over a week. I wasn't sure which was weirder: that I had dedicated readers, or that I was more willing to share the details of my life with these distant strangers than with anyone I knew in the real world.
It was this-- this, and not the underlying terror of Gabe's condition-- that I was writing about when Susan sat down. She might have been there without my noticing for five or ten minutes; the waiter came, and she ordered, and I looked up.
"I didn't want to disturb you," she said when the waiter had gone. "It looked like... you were writing something important."
"Not really," I said.
"Is everything okay?"
"You've been kind of... distant," she said. "At work. If it has something to do with me, Kerry-- if you want me to back off--"
"It has nothing to do with you."
"Are you sure?"
"Because if you want to tell me, you can."
"Let it go, Susan," I said, despite knowing that she would understand if anyone would. She had watched Mark Greene the way I was watching Gabe: Mark had been like Gabe on fast forward, a quick deterioration and then gone. But I was too tired to talk, and Susan wasn't that kind of friend.
I was ready to leave a couple of hours before dawn. Susan followed me out. "I wasn't planning on staying much longer anyway," she said.
"Stop worrying about me," I said. "I'm all right." But her car was on the way to mine, so we walked a few yards together.
"I hope, whatever it is, that it works out okay," she said when we got to her car.
"It won't," I said.
She gave me a hug that started out as an I'll-see-you-later hug, a supportive-friend hug. But it went on too long for that, and soon she was kissing the top of my head, and I had my lips at her neck. And then we had our tongues down each other's throats, streetlit with my back against her Volkswagen.
She shifted me aside just long enough to open the car door and toss her things on the passenger seat. She flipped the front seat forward and pushed me into the back. I felt childish, making out with my ex-girlfriend in the cramped back seat of her parked car. We hadn't forgotten how to touch each other. When her warm tongue teased my clit, I saw how violently I'd talked myself out of wanting her. I wondered if when I agreed that I could never love her, I'd spoken too soon, or if it was just the orgasm talking.
She called a few weeks later to ask me if I wanted to drop by her apartment. There was no pretense; we knew what we were agreeing to. We were just friends, but every once in a while, we could make an exception. It wasn't like either of us was seeing anyone else.
I met Nina at a conference. I'd been asked to sit on a panel on creating better resources for Differently Abled staff. I despised that kind of tokenism, not to mention the phrase "differently abled," which always made me wonder whether we were including the double-jointed. But it wasn't the sort of thing you turned down, and I seldom had to say much. There were worse reasons to skip work.
Nina was a linguist doing research on communication between doctors and patients. She had short, loosely curly black hair and smooth translucent skin, and as I watched her present her paper, I thought she was so beautiful that she was surely straight. Married. With kids. Lots of them.
Shyly, I approached her after she gave her paper. I offered the usual compliments: interesting research, useful findings. To my surprise, she mentioned that she'd seen me at the panel discussion, and she thought I'd held my own against the torrent of rhetoric. She told me that a lot of doctors seemed to forget that they worked with human beings, not complex plumbing systems, and that I seemed to be one of the exceptions. I asked her if she wanted to get a cup of coffee after the conference ended for the day. We sat together at the keynote lecture and passed notes like eighth graders.
Nina was wonderful. She was the kind of woman who got prettier the more you looked at her. She was brilliant, sophisticated, and witty. She was the first person I'd ever dated who was thrilled when I told her I had season tickets to the Lyric Opera; she laughed with admiration when I told her I'd made a hefty donation a few years earlier in order to get better seats. Her college-professor schedule was flexible, and she'd show up at County sometimes just to say hi, often with a bouquet of flowers or a good lunch in tow. She was way too good for me, but she seemed to see something in me anyway.
The two of us had been together for about a month when Susan made one of her late-night phone calls.
"I think... I have a girlfriend," I said.
"Oh," said Susan. "I-- I didn't know."
"We could... Zorba's," I said. "If you-- if you just wanted to get out of your apartment."
"I don't think that would be such a good idea," Susan said, and I thought of the back seat of her Volkswagen. "I'm sorry," she said.
"Don't apologize," I said.
She said goodbye, and she hung up. And I realized that part of me missed her terribly. A very specific part.
It wasn't to say that sex with Nina wasn't satisfying. Nina was good at anything she did. Being with Nina was easy, almost effortless: she was so kind and so free of danger. Maybe it was the wildness that I missed. With Kim and with Sandy, the very idea of sex with a woman had been transgressive, but that uncertainty and novelty had passed. And Susan-- well, she was an altogether different story. There was a song that I couldn't place that kept looping in my head. Something from a musical, probably. The only lyric I could remember was, "Some girls you marry; some girls you love." Nina was definitely the kind of girl you married. I wasn't sure what Susan was.
Still, I stayed with Nina for a fairly long time, maybe longer than I should have. Susan met some guy in her yoga class, and there-- we were both seeing other people. We were still friendly at work, and we still ran into each other at Zorba's once in a while. We congratulated ourselves on our self-control: we could be faithful to our lovers despite the temptation of one another.
And I would like to say that Nina was a perfect saint, and that I was perfectly cruel. But I was a good girlfriend-- so good that it was clear to anyone who knew me that I was being dishonest with Nina. I made time for her and held back my criticisms; I bought her things and took her places and kept her happy in bed. It killed me to know that I would never be able to love her. Nina should have been the right girl, but when I tried to picture us in ten years or even in six months, I couldn't see anything at all.
There was one weakness in our relationship that I could capitalize on and blow out of proportion. Nina didn't like my friends. Or, more precisely, she didn't like the relationships I had with my friends. Some, she tolerated: Gabe, because of his frailty, and Susan, out of respect for the strange lesbian custom that encourages us to remain close with our ex-lovers. But Nina wished I hadn't started going over to Jeanie's once a week to cook dinner and play with Carlos. Jeanie still looked healthy, but she tired easily; those few hours of help and company did her a lot of good. Nina and I sustained an icy argument because I would not cancel on Jeanie to accommodate Nina's Symphony tickets. And Nina hated John. I wasn't sure what the problem was: a bitter reaction to John's good-looking heterosexuality, envy of our closeness, or a simple clash of personalities. Or perhaps she sensed that we'd once violated the Platonic nature of our friendship. Whatever it was, she would roll her eyes at the mention of his name and ask why I bothered with him.
John called in the middle of a winter night so cold that I couldn't blame him for having fantasies about raiding the medicine cabinet. He and Abby had gotten into a fight a few days earlier, and she wouldn't return his phone calls. "I tried Peter and got his voice mail," John said. "I don't know what I'll... I don't think I ought to be alone."
So I got in my car at three in the morning and hauled him back to my place. He hadn't eaten; he hadn't slept. I stayed up with him for a few hours, made him some eggs, listened when he wanted to talk. He didn't want to say much. Whatever had gone on with Abby, he wasn't ready to share it with anyone. He found some movie on TV to watch. Eventually, he mentioned that he was feeling kind of tired, and I set him up in the guest bedroom. I called him in sick, then drifted off on the couch, relieved that I had the next day off.
The intercom buzzer woke me. It was Nina: John's crisis had made me forget that I'd made plans with her. I invited her up, knowing she'd be livid when she saw I wasn't ready to go. As I waited for her to come up to my apartment, I realized that I wasn't going to be going anywhere at all, not while John was still asleep. And I knew that 'livid' wouldn't come close to how Nina would react when I told her that.
"I'm not going to leave him to wake up alone," I said, when the argument had not quite escalated into a screaming match.
"What do you want me to do? Wait?"
"You'll have to," I said. "I need a shower."
"I can't believe you forgot," she said. "It's not like you."
"I was busy keeping a friend from killing himself. Excuse me for forgetting about a date."
"It's not just today, Kerry. It's all the time. You're so busy I hardly see you, and when you finally do have time, all of a sudden there's some emergency that you have to put ahead of our relationship."
"I'm not putting it ahead of our relationship, I--"
"I'm just saying I think you need to think about where your priorities are," she said.
"I know where my priorities are," I said. "Right now, they're with a guy who's been here for me since long before you were in the picture, and who's going to be here long after you're gone."
"You're really going to put your drug-addict ex-boyfriend ahead of me?"
"He's not my--"
"Because if that's how you feel," she said, "there's no reason for me to be here at all." She slammed the door as she left, probably trying to wake John. I knew that she was being dramatic because she wanted me to call and apologize. She wanted me to promise that I'd make her the center of my life. But I knew that she didn't matter enough to me for that to be possible. I would never call her, and she would vanish into the spirit realm of bad breakups.
John wandered into the living room, scruffy and shirtless, stretching. "So I guess we're two for two now," he said, smiling weakly.
"Put a shirt on, Carter," I said.
"Why? Do you want me to go?"
"I'd kind of... like to be alone, yes."
"Alone with your misery and a bottle of vodka?"
"Something like that," I said.
"No," he said.
"No, as in, if I'm not allowed to clean out the medicine cabinet over a woman who may very well be the love of my life, you're not allowed to empty a bottle of Absolut for a woman you've spent weeks looking for a way to unload."
"It... it wasn't like that," I said.
"Did you love her?"
"I-- I wanted to."
"I think," John said, "this calls for hot dogs, Hostess cupcakes, and a couple of cheerleader movies."
"You're entitled to your opinion. Go put on a shirt."
"Only if I get a ride to Blockbuster and Dominick's."
I put my coat on over yesterday's clothes. John came back from the guest bedroom fully clothed and bundled up for winter. It was too cold to walk even the few blocks to the video store and supermarket, so it was too cold for anyone else to be shopping. We came home from our excursion with two cheerleader movies, two beauty pageant movies, an impressive assortment of junk food, and one pack of cigarettes, because according to John, American Spirit Lights don't really count.
Four hours and two Kirsten Dunst movies later, there was a grove of Diet Coke cans on my coffee table, a bouquet of empty Cheetos bags and cupcake wrappers in the trash can we'd moved from the kitchen, and half a package of hot dogs bubbling in the microwave. All the refined sugar and preservatives were making us philosophical.
"Kerry, are you sure we bought relish?"
"It's in one of those bags," I said. "Want me to look?"
"No. Wait. Here. Under the buns."
"That sounded very wrong, John."
"Why'd you get relish and pickles?"
"They're not pickles. They're hot peppers."
"No," he said, "I found the peppers. These are definitely pickles."
"Put them back in the bag. We can donate them to the lounge fridge or something."
"What, like, 'Sorry, we ate all the cookies, but here, have some pickles'?"
"People'd eat them."
"You could put old lutefisk in there, and someone would eat it," John said. "That's not the point."
"I heard Malucci put Carol Hathaway's breast milk in his cereal once."
"See? That's my point."
"You don't have a point."
"I have a point," he said. "I have a good point."
"Well, what is it?"
"She misses you."
"What's that got to do with the lounge fridge?" I said. "And isn't she still going out with that yoga person?"
"It's got everything to do with the lounge fridge, and no, they broke up a couple of weeks ago. Beautifully. In yoga class. She told him she was tired of being told how to feel, and he didn't give good enough head to make up for it."
I laughed. "Sounds like her." I was annoyed that she hadn't told me she'd dumped her boyfriend, but I understood. We hadn't seen each other much in the past few weeks, and maybe she hadn't had the chance to bring it up. Or maybe it was too much temptation, and we were better off thinking of each other as off-limits.
"You should call her," John said.
"Maybe I will."
"You should. Didn't we get ketchup?"
"Who puts ketchup on hot dogs?"
"You can't put ketchup on a hot dog."
"I can put whatever I want on a hot dog. I can put peanut butter on a hot dog."
"But you wouldn't. Because it's wrong."
"But I would," he said. "Because it feels so good."
And we doubled over laughing, and I was thinking maybe, maybe I would call Susan.
Where Susan was concerned, "maybe" almost always meant "yes." I was on the phone with her a few days later. I'd been rehearsing my end of the conversation for hours beforehand, but I didn't have the chance to use any of the lines I'd prepared. "Susan, it's me," I said when she answered the phone.
"I'll be right over," she said, and she hung up.
The living room no longer looked like the aftermath of a passing tornado. Still, I kept finding Cheetos and Cap'n Crunch in between the couch cushions, and a faint cigarette odor was still hanging around. To Susan's eyes, the place would be spotless. I wondered, suddenly, what would happen if we got back together and stayed together. She'd leave things everywhere and irritate me. Maybe, if the mess came from her, I'd learn to find it endearing. No, she'd just have to learn to put her stuff away.
When she got to my apartment, the first thing I noticed was how hard I'd been trying not to think about how beautiful she was. Her cheeks were still pink from the cold. I could see where she was starting to get lines around her mouth and in the corners of her eyes. It had taken me some time to see how much she'd changed in the five years we hadn't seen each other, but I knew it all now: the weight she'd gained; the weariness etched in her face. But what I really saw were the bright blue of her eyes and the fullness of her lips, and seven years waiting for God-knows-what, when with a little less denial we might not have wasted so much time.
And there we were, about to do it again. I couldn't this time: I couldn't give myself over to her and just let her go. I was tired of pretending that she didn't mean anything, without really even knowing who I was trying to protect. If I was in love with her, which was a strong possibility, I couldn't keep lying to her. There was no right girl out there somewhere. The right girl, or as close to right as I was likely to get, was there in my apartment, shaking her hair out from her wool hat. I didn't know why I had let myself think I could do better than this.
She took off her boots and her socks, and then she just kept going. She pulled off her sweater, stepped out of her pants, and took off her underwear. I wasn't sure if she wanted me to touch her, but I was satisfied just to look at her, naked in the doorway, her body drinking in the heat.
"I read everything that you wrote about me," she said.
"You weren't really... supposed to read that."
"It's on the goddamn internet, Kerry."
"How did you...?"
"I asked Carter," she said.
"I-- I don't know whether to kill him or thank him."
"Thank him," she said. "Later."
She pulled me to my bedroom and stripped me down. We knelt on the bed, kissing messily, her hand firm on my hip to keep me from losing my balance. I'd put the bottle of lube on the bedside table so I wouldn't have to go searching for it. I reached around her for it and squeezed some lube onto my hand. "Oh, cold," she said when I touched her, but when I pressed my thumb into her clit, she groaned and went back to kissing me.
I pushed one finger into her and moved in and out until she was begging, "Come on, give me more." It was impossible to say no to her while I had three fingers inside her, and she was asking for the rest of me, as much as I could fit. I poured lube on my knuckles and folded my thumb under. She dug her nails into my hip. I made a few little thrusts, but she was doing most of the work. "Oh God, Kerry," she said. "Don't you... ever... get a... girlfriend... again." I wanted to think that those words meant something, even if a few seconds later she was bucking against me and naming every god in heaven.
I drew out of her, and she pulled me with her as she collapsed on to the bed. We lay on our sides, facing each other. She stroked my hair. "Where's the lube?" she said.
"Oh, it's-- I think it's on the table where--" I reached over her and felt around for it. "Here."
She took it from me and put it back on the table. She bit me on the shoulder playfully, then started kissing my neck and my breasts. When she pressed her lips into my sternum, I thought she would leave a bruise. Susan never treated me like she was afraid of hurting me. She knew that physically, I was almost unbreakable.
Susan held me steady with one dry hand and brushed my clit with the slick fingertips of the other. I remembered how tentative she'd been the first time we'd had sex. She didn't seem to be worried about getting it wrong anymore. I felt the familiar restless tingle of arousal and pushed my hips forward into her hand. I didn't want her to go so slow. It occurred to me that I had a voice. "Harder," I said. "Harder, and a little bit-- there." She was rubbing my clit fiercely, and I thought that she planned to just jerk me off. But she took her free hand off my back, so gently that I didn't notice, and pushed a finger into my vagina. I moaned with surprise.
"Too hard?" she said.
"No-- just maybe-- lube it."
"You're dry tonight," she said. "Don't be nervous."
"I'm not nervous."
"And don't lie to me," she said, and she kissed my nipple. She got two fingers in me, and we were back in business. I dug my hands into the soft flesh of her thighs. She was up to three fingers, and she was making deep, fast thrusts. "Damn it," she said. "Would you loosen up?"
"You forgot how long it takes," I said.
"Maybe it's... I want to hear you come. I don't want to wait."
"I could... there are other ways to..."
"Skin a cat?" she said.
"You know," I giggled, "making me laugh isn't going to speed things up."
"Isn't it?" she said, and a bright red burst of pain shot in.
I bit my lip until the pain felt good, full, full of her. I kept whispering, "Don't stop," because she could have done anything else to me and I wouldn't have cared. And it was like that as I came: "Don't stop, Susan. Don't stop. Don't stop."
We held each other for what seemed like a long time. I thought we might fall asleep that way, and I wouldn't have minded it. "God," I said. "It's been a while."
"Yeah, well, we were seeing other people," Susan said.
"We did a pretty good job, didn't we?"
"Yeah," she said. "We were faithful and everything. I mean, I was."
"Me too. In a... Jimmy Carter kind of way."
"What? Oh. 'I've been unfaithful in my heart.'"
"Same here," she said.
"Not what I meant, though," I said.
"Then what did you mean?"
"Nina didn't like fisting," I said. "She... didn't want to... hurt me or something."
"Oh. She was one of those?"
"She was really... conservative in bed. I-- I bought a vibrator. And I was excited about it-- it's got a nice feel, adjustable speeds, the motor in the middle so you get it all the way through..."
"Well, I'm interested."
"I can-- it's-- it's in the drawer, if you want--"
"No," she said. "Save it for next time."
I gave her a quick kiss. "So there's going to be a next time?"
"I want there to be," she said. She kissed me back. "Go back to trashing your ex."
"I... I'd been planning it all day. So once we were in bed, I got it out while she wasn't looking and just sort of... ran it up her back." I danced my fingers up Susan's spine, and she gave me a squeeze. "She snapped. She lectured me about how sex toys are tools of the patriarchy."
Susan buried her head in my chest and laughed. "How long did you stay with this woman?"
"About-- almost five months," I said. "Four of them trying to convince myself that she was good for me, so I shouldn't break up with her."
"Yeah, I was having that relationship."
"He was that bad?"
"Carter told you everything, didn't he?" she said.
"That man needs a muzzle."
"It wouldn't help," I said. "He'd use Morse Code or something."
"John's a good judge of character, though," I said.
"He didn't like Nina, either?"
"She didn't like him."
"Are you sure she's human?"
I wasn't sure what to say, so I kissed Susan instead. This, of course, became an excuse to make out. Touching her was still easier than talking. It was the easiest thing in the world. "Stop," I said.
"Is something wrong?"
"We-- we shouldn't-- we need to talk to each other. If this is going to work."
"If what's going to work?"
"Us," I said.
"Are you saying you... want to get back together?"
"If-- if that's what you want."
"Do you think it'd work?" she said.
"I miss you," I said. "I miss you so much, and I-- I can't imagine finding anyone-- anyone better than you. And I tried."
"I'm not that special," she said.
"That's relative." I pulled her closer to me, so her breasts were pressed into mine. I leaned my forehead into hers, and we were breathing in unison.
"You-- this is so-- if someone had told me seven years ago that you'd be the one-- that I'd fall in love with you-- I would have laughed," she said. "I would have been offended. I would have thought, anyone but-- but here I am next to you and-- and I've spent months wanting to be here. With you. And now that I'm with you, I don't want to be anywhere else."
"Are you-- are you in love with me?"
"Not in a head over heels, 'all the birds are singing just for me' kind of way. I'd be fine without you. We were fine. But-- but when I'm with you, I'm better than that. Every time I've... been in love with someone, I felt like I could leave them-- like if I walked away and didn't see them, I'd get over it, and it wouldn't hurt that much. And it worked. I fall hard, I move halfway across the country, and I... pick myself up again."
I thought of the way Mark Greene was when she'd left for Arizona. Like she'd ripped his heart out. But I could see that she would have hurt him more by staying. He wouldn't have gotten over her so easily. And I thought that I might be able to give her what she needed: someone who could walk away from her and be fine. Someone who would not demand to be loved too deeply, but instead would be surprised by it, and pleased. I'd lost a lot of lovers by withholding too much of myself. But Susan was the kind of person who ran away when people offered her too much. There were parts of me that she would never have, but I would never ask her to surrender herself to me. Perhaps, knowing that, she would be able to stay.
"I don't need you," she said. "I can live without you. But I don't want to. I know that if I left you, I'd keep falling in love with you over and over again. And maybe that's-- that's what it means. That's what I've been looking for. Because I've never felt that way about anyone."
Her eyes were tearing up. I kissed her cheekbones; I smoothed her hair. "So-- so-- are we on again?" she said.
"I'd say so," I said.
"Well... okay. Good."
We shared a lingering kiss, as if to seal the deal. Then, suddenly, she tunneled under the covers.
"What are you doing?" I said.
"Celebrating," she said. And her tongue was back between my legs where it belonged.
We didn't need any further discussion to know where we stood. After a week or two of trying to schedule ourselves more time together, we realized that we ran a greater risk of getting tired of each other. We'd leave work together and fall into bed the minute we got to her apartment. I started giving us competing night shifts so we wouldn't become one of those couples who never made time for anything but each other.
At work, she kept me grounded, made me smile. We'd let our knuckles brush as we passed in the hallway, and sometimes that was enough to keep me going until the end of my shift. I stiffened the first time she slung her arm around me in the doctor's lounge, but once I persuaded myself that there was no danger in confirming what the rest of the staff already knew anyway, I didn't hesitate to show my affection for her. If anyone objected, they did so when Susan and I weren't around. Our relationship didn't seem to faze the staff, to be honest. They'd all seen stranger.
Gradually, I came to see parts of myself as hers. Being open with her was almost restful. In not prying-- in allowing me to keep things private, or to reserve them as the domain of John or Mlungisi or Jeanie-- Susan encouraged my trust. I accepted that there were things that I would never know about her. I accepted that there were things that I didn't want to know.
In spite of that, she had me, knew me in a way that I hadn't let other people know me. I thought of my past lovers and how they'd tried to reshape me into their image of what I ought to have been. Susan loved me anal-retentive and impatient and short-tempered and awkward, just as I loved her jaded and selfish and impulsive. I'd fallen for her because of who and what she was, and often that was enough to keep me from letting her flaws get to me. Or maybe it was the fact that love allows us to see the strengths that lie behind those imperfections of character. When she got on my nerves, I could remind myself: she was wryly funny, self-aware, spontaneous.
And she loved me back. For a while, I was loath to believe it, but she did. That made up for a lot.
Zorba's became our place, one of those things that I only shared with Susan. We'd go together from time to time, but usually it was one or the other of us. More often than not, one of us would show up to find the other already there. Even when I was there alone, I felt her there: it was like we left behind an energy of some kind that hung around waiting for us.
The waiters at Zorba's normally minded their own business, but one early morning, one of them approached the table where I was working alone. "I've got a question for you," he said.
"You and that... other woman who comes in sometimes. Are the two of you... dating or something?"
"Yeah," I said. "More or less."
"That's kind of sweet," he said. Then, he turned to the counter and shouted, "Hey, Nicky! You owe me twenty bucks!" The waiter went back to the corner of the restaurant where the employees hang out, but he came back about five minutes later. Shifting his weight from foot to foot, he told me that it didn't seem fair to keep his winnings to himself, so he was giving me a $20 credit.
The waiter had just returned with my free food when Susan walked in. She eased into the seat across from me without needing to say hello. I caught her trying to steal my french fries and stopped her hand with my own. I swirled my thumb in the palm of her hand. And I knew that I could not possibly deserve better than this.