Ascending and Descending
And [s]he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
The long corridor in the ER seems to be getting longer as the day wears on, the fluorescent lights harsher and more glaring. Abby walks once again, briskly, down the hall on her way to grab supplies in preparation for a fast approaching trauma. She quickly sidesteps an opening door, narrowly avoiding collision, and catches a glimpse, as her body pivots, of long blond curls exiting the elevator into the lobby. She stops abruptly and takes a few steps back.
"Dr. Legaspi?" Abby is squinting, not entirely believing her eyes.
Legaspi saunters over, her hands in the square front pockets of her snugly fitting black wool coat. "Hi, Abby." The casualness of her tone suggests that the last 5 years have not happened, that she was never fired, that she never left in a flurry of controversy, rumor and innuendo. "How's your mom?"
"She's doing great. Umm, sorry, I have to...." She points down the hall in the direction she was heading.
Legaspi nods. "Ok--I'll catch up with you later."
"Sure," Abby speaks over her shoulder. She shakes her head slightly in confusion, eyebrows raised, as she rushes back to work. She continues to glance back down the hall as she moves away, and notices that Legaspi follows behind her at a more leisurely pace. Heads turn all up and down the hall as she walks. She's going in the direction of both the front desk and the lounge, but before she reaches either, Dr. Weaver emerges from a side door, coat in hand. They veer off together toward the back entrance and disappear from sight.
Less than a minute later, a siren sounds loudly outside, and Abby bangs through the swinging doors and rushes out into the cold to help slide the loaded-down gurney from the back of the ambulance. As she moves, her eyes do a quick sweeping search of the area, but the two women are gone.
Kerry has never been much of a believer in psychic phenomena, but she's sure she senses a change in the atmosphere of the ER when Kim arrives, perhaps in the same way that animals sometimes sense minute changes in weather: how a slight lowering of air pressure or shift in the direction of the wind can send whole flocks of roosting birds into frantic flight or cause entire herds of placidly grazing bison to panic and stampede. She can't say exactly what the feeling is--a slight tightening of the muscles at the base of her skull? a quick burning like the brush of ice or flame on the palms of her hands? But it's that same kind of sense--just beyond the range of normal perception, but definitely real, that compels her to step out into the hall at exactly the right moment to intercept Legaspi's progress, to lightly touch her elbow, briefly meet her eyes and smile before they continue down the corridor side by side.
When she'd called Kim earlier in the afternoon to let her know she was running late and Kim had suggested she just stop by and meet her at work, beads of sweat had immediately formed on Kerry's upper lip and brow, but she'd agreed.
But now she's surprised by how comfortable she feels strolling through the ER with her lesbian ex-lover. The ER, she realizes, is her turf. And it must have been difficult, a real act of will, for Kim to come here again.
Neither of them says a word until the doors slide shut behind them and they're safely outside.
"It's cold for April," Kerry says as she pulls her scarf more tightly around her neck. She immediately feels foolish for making so obvious and mundane a statement at a moment of such gravity.
"That's something I didn't miss about Chicago, the weather." Legaspi hunches into the cold and glances at her with a half smile, but doesn't stop walking.
"It must feel strange to be back here." Kerry jerks her chin slightly to indicate the building behind them.
"Very." Kim is hurrying, Kerry realizes, to put some distance between them and the hospital.
When they round the corner toward the el platform, Kim finally slows and shudders again from the cold. Kerry reaches out and runs a warming hand up and down her back. Feeling the solidity of her body is almost a shock; makes her realize that this woman is not a dream or apparition as she's been for so long, but suddenly real again.
Kim stops now and turns to her, gives her a long searching look which makes her uncomfortably aware, as she knew she'd be, of the passage of time, the changes in her own face and body. As they stand there together on the sidewalk, an ambulance rushes past, washing them both in high, bright sound, a single, quick pulse of red light, and a dusty gust of wind. The siren cuts out abruptly as the ambulance rounds the corner to the hospital entrance.
"Wow, Kerry, it's so good to see you," Kim says. She snakes one long arm around the shorter woman for a brief, lopsided embrace.
Kerry nods and smiles, keeping her arms stiffly against her body and looking at the ground rather than meeting Legaspi's gaze.
"Yeah. It's good to see you too."
The light in the restaurant is yellow and warm. A casual place where the best offerings are cold Wisconsin beer and homemade soup and bread, it's in Kim's old neighborhood, a place where they've been many times together, though Kerry has never been here alone or with anyone else.
They sit down across from each other and order a drink, and Kim gives Kerry another long, searching look. This time, Kerry returns it. At first, as she studies Kim's face, it seems to her that no time has passed at all, that Kim is the same person sitting before her now as she was 5 years ago. But then she notices something gaunter, something sterner about the set of her features. A new hollowness below her cheekbones, perhaps. Her hair is shorter too, and swept back somehow differently. The cumulative effect of the changes is something Kerry decides she likes. Kim doesn't look older, exactly, not in a way that would make someone guess she's 38 rather than 33, but definitely less beatific, no longer an angel, now, but a mere human being.
A slow smile spreads across Kerry's face, and then Kim's, as they continue to frankly and openly assess each other. That old angelic quality haunted her for months after Kim's departure, even gave her a series of nightmares, so she's relieved to see that it's gone.
Kerry is the first to speak. "It's amazing, Kim. You haven't changed at all."
Kim dips her head and breaths a quiet laugh. "Liar."
Kerry's smile deepens. "Well, you look great, anyway."
"Thanks. That's a compliment I'll take."
Kim's smile, Kerry realizes, is one thing about her that has truly not changed. There's the same tilt to her head that hints at old shyness, the same captivating warmth in her eyes. When that smile had first been directed toward her, it had made her feel special: chosen. But later, when it disappeared and she found herself caught in the other woman's cold glare instead, she'd felt a chill like death, as if she'd been spurned by an actual representative of God on earth.
Now it just makes her feel cautious and confused.
"You look great too, Kerry." Kim's voice is soft, and Kerry believes she means what she says.
The waiter arrives and deposits glasses of cold beer in front of them. Kim lifts her glass in a silent toast. Kerry does the same, and they both take a sip. Now, they stare at the glasses and their hands on the table top.
"Well, I guess this was going to be awkward no matter what. I'd be lying if I said `it seems like just yesterday...,'" Kim says. She glances up at Kerry, then back at the table top again. Kerry watches her run a finger across the trail of condensation on her glass and understands she's trying to cover her nervousness with sarcasm.
"We're supposed to be `catching up,' right? You seem to know much more about my situation than I know about yours...."
"Oh, I really don't have much of a story to tell. I was in San Francisco for a little over a year, and wasn't very happy there. It has a great atmosphere, in some ways, but I didn't feel myself really connecting with anyone. I suppose there are a few anecdotes I could tell about that, but I'll spare you. Coming back here felt so easy, and really right."
"Yeah, well, I make a decent living. And I do volunteer work at a women's shelter--not as often as I should, but enough to feel virtuous, at least." Her grimace suggests how strongly she sometimes feels her own inadequacies, that she's not entirely satisfied with her life. "Enough that they know my name, anyway."
"You're a good doctor, Kim. You've really been missed at County."
"I don't know about that, but thanks for saying so. I've been in touch with Carl--not much, but some, enough to stay up to date on the major events."
"So he's your source. I was wondering."
"I was waiting for you to ask." They both laugh.
"So, what did he say about me?"
"Well, he delivered the shocking news that you're a lesbian. He seemed disappointed. I think he really liked you." Kim gives her that smile again, the old familiar warmth in her eyes.
"Yeah, well...." Kerry knows she's being teased.
Kim turns serious. "I never told him about the two of us. I guess he never knew."
"I always appreciated your discretion." There's a protracted silence. Kerry takes a long drink of cold beer.
"He told me about Sandy."
It's Kerry's turn to trace the lines of condensation along the side of her glass. "I guess that was common knowledge."
Kim nods. "So how's it been for you? At work."
"Yeah, coming out."
Kerry sighs, doing a quick mental scan of the last five years. "There've been a few incidents, but I guess overall, I have to say things have been fine. Most people have been really supportive. And the ones who aren't supportive are mostly just silent."
"I guess it's hard to know what the effect really is. Prejudice usually stays pretty hidden these days."
"That doesn't mean we should skulk about in the shadows because a few narrow- minded individuals disapprove."
"I heard about Romano," Kim says without missing a beat.
"It was a terrible accident."
"Sometimes I truly believe in karma."
"Amen to that."
This is new for the two of them, this sense of mutual understanding and investment in a shared lifestyle. Kerry appreciates the comfort of it. It seems to her, for the first time in the evening, that she's talking to an old friend.
Kim reaches out now and touches Kerry's hand. The movement is sudden but also seems to be the continuation of a natural process, as when snow that has gathered slowly, flake by flake, on a splayed tree branch during a day-long gentle snow fall, finally, when caressed by a slight evening breeze, falls heavily to earth.
Kerry breaths a long, quiet sigh containing equal parts exasperation and desire. She turns her hand up and lightly grasps Kim's fingertips, and they sit like that for a few seconds, still and silent. Kerry moves her thumb once up and down Kim's slender fingers. It's a gentle, stroking motion which reveals her inclination to give in to the moment, but her brow is deeply furrowed, and now she shakes her head.
"I'm sorry, but I don't understand this. What are we doing? What do you want?"
Kim's voice, when she answers, is calm but intense. "I missed you, Kerry. I still miss you. It all seemed so impossible back then, but the way things have changed for both of us.... It just seems to me that it might work now--the two of us together. I want us to have a second chance."
Kerry stares at their two hands lightly touching on the table top.
"It's good to hear you say that. It means a lot to me." She stops speaking, then starts up again.
"I missed you too, you know. Everyday. For a long time. You managed to dismantle my life more quickly and completely than anything or anyone else ever had, and then you left. You wouldn't even talk to me about it! What kind of fool would I be to risk putting myself through that again?"
Kim extracts her hand from Kerry's tightening grasp and puts it safely in her lap.
"You weren't the only one who was hurt." There's a quaver in her voice that betrays her struggle with her own emotions. She glances up at Kerry from beneath her own furrowed brow, then looks back down at the table top again.
"Maybe I like being alone." Kerry says this with a touch of defiance in her voice.
Kerry lifts her glass, still half full of beer, then sets it back down again. "We moved too fast last time, and it was a mistake."
Kim nods. "I agree. So let's just spend some time together and see how things go. See how we feel. Ok?"
Kerry gives a hesitant nod of agreement, at the same time wondering if it's possible to completely let go of so much old hurt and anger. She says now what she feels their entire conversation has been leading up to. "It wasn't really my decision, you know. She didn't give me much of a choice."
"Good for her." There's a cutting edge to Kim's voice and a distance and caution in her eyes that hadn't been there five minutes ago. Kerry feels an old fear rising in her chest, the feeling of powerlessness as things begin to fall apart. She takes a deep breath and tries changing the subject. "Tell me more about San Francisco."
Kim seems as eager as Kerry to avoid an argument and sidestep hurt feelings. Her face quickly softens into a thoughtful expression. "Well, I tried dating a man."
"You moved to San Francisco and dated a man?" Incredulity shows clearly on Kerry's face.
"It's ironic, I know."
"So how was it?"
"A disaster. We were good friends before I moved out there, and now he's not even speaking to me."
"I'm sorry." Kerry tries to hide her smile by lifting her glass and taking a long sip. "So you couldn't find any nice young women in San Francisco?"
"Yeah, sure. There were a few of those too. It was fun for awhile...."
Kerry chokes on her beer and catches a drip with a finger tip. "A few...? You said you were only there for a year. How did you have time for all this?"
Kim shrugs and brushes her hair back from her face.
"You're a dangerous woman, Kim," Kerry says, her voice thick with forced levity. "I think I should be afraid of you."
"You are afraid of me."
Kim says this with utter confidence, not the slightest hint of a smile on her face. Kerry tries to force a laugh, but the sound gets stuck in her throat. She just shakes her head instead, realizing that she already feels emotionally committed to seeing this through, even though it seems likely to once again end in disaster.
Kim reaches out now and brushes Kerry's face with two soft finger tips. "Hey, I was only joking." She touches the line of Kerry's jaw trying to lightly guide her chin up so she can see more clearly the expression on her face, but Kerry won't be coerced even in this gentle way. She closes her eyes and puts her own hand on top of Kim's instead, pressing it flat against her cheek.
"I know that," she says softly. "I can take a joke." She slides Kim's hand down and brushes her lips across the deeply creased softness of the open palm, then releases it.
Through this small act, at the same time bold and exquisitely tender, Kim senses in the other woman a new confidence, a new caution, and--five years ago she wouldn't have believed this could ever have been possibly--a more intense fierceness and beauty. She wants to let her hand linger on Kerry's cheek, to lean across the table and draw her in for a long, hungry kiss, but instead, when Kerry releases it, she lowers her hand back to the table top. Kerry follows with her own hand, and they sit again, this time comfortably, with their finger tips touching.