A Simple Kind of Touch
Kim sneezes noisily into her hand, and when she opens her balled fist, there's a red rose resting on her palm. She lifts it to her nose and sniffs, then threads the short stem through the top button hole of her pale green blouse.
They're on the roof together, leaning against the wall near the entrance to the stairwell, sheltered from the wind. The morning was rainy, and now the sky is reflected in puddles all around the roof, white clouds scudding quickly across blue. The moisture in the air holds the sunlight in a way that makes the air itself seem golden. Somewhere nearby, water is dripping.
"What are you gonna do for your next trick," Abby asks, "pull nickels out of my nose?"
In answer, Kim moves a step closer, brushes the side of Abby's head with her finger tips, and plucks an unlit cigarette from behind her ear. Before Abby has time to react, Kim moves it toward her own face, pushes it up one nostril and pulls it out the other, then, cupping one of Abby's cheeks in her palm, places it gently between her lips.
Abby removes the cigarette, and holds it loosely between her fingers, a bemused half smile on her face. "You shouldn't do that. I'm trying to quit." She notices that where Kim's hand had been, there's the lingering scent of roses.
Kim takes a step back, and leans against the wall again.
"How did you manage it, anyway?" asks Abby.
"No, I mean how did you manage to quit smoking?"
"Oh. Actually, I was never addicted. I've always been able to give it up at will."
"You smoked enough to learn how to blow perfect smoke rings, but you were never addicted?"
"And you're tall. And blond. And a doctor. I bet you can hold your liquor, too. What are your hobbies? Let me guess, competitive horse-back riding and collecting modern art."
"No, just running marathons."
Abby shakes her head in disbelief. "I hate you."
"You don't hate me, Abby."
The look Kim gives her is one Abby remembers well, the unevenly arched eyebrows, the impassive line of her mouth. Though she knows it's being used to tease her now, she remembers how it used to make her feel: small and chided. An image of Dr. Weaver's face flashes through her mind, and she realizes it's one thing they have in common.
"Is this for me?" Abby asks, reaching over and lifting the rose out of Kim's button hole.
"You wish." Kim plucks it out of Abby's hand. "It's either for my true love, or for no one." She snaps her fingers and the rose is gone.
"Oh, no," Abby says. "Don't tell me I've stumbled upon the scene of another rendezvous."
"You seem to have an aptitude for that."
"Yeah, an aptitude for lurking in the margins." Abby pushes her hair back from her face, and then studies the cigarette she's still holding in her hand. "You wanna know a secret?"
"Sure." Kim is peering at the view out over the city.
"I had a fling with a woman once."
Kim's head swivels around, and she raises her eyebrows again.
"It was fun while it lasted. The sex was hot." Abby glances up at Kim, who's smiling now. "She was a real player, though, but so beautiful... I swear she could have charmed the grease off a ducks back." She shakes her head, smiling and remembering.
"What happened? Wait, let me guess. You were stolen away by a dark haired Casanova."
"No, actually, she broke my heart."
Abby takes a step toward Kim and looks up into her face. Kim's smile has disappeared, replaced by an expression of seriousness and waiting. Abby can smell her perfume, more musky than sweet, and she can tell she's holding her breath. It makes her feel powerful, to have this effect on someone so sculpted and bright, so perfect. She lets that power surge through her for a moment, realizing as it does that it feels almost exactly like anger: a warmth that starts in her belly, courses up through her chest and head, and then it's gone. She reaches up now, pushes back a few of Kim's blond curls and tucks the cigarette neatly behind her ear.
"Catch you later, Tex," she says, then turns on her heels and walks away.
Kim stares after her, her face frozen, expression still serious and expectant. Abby's back is framed for a moment in the doorway, then the door swings closed behind her, and she's gone.
Abby takes the steps two at a time, as if fleeing from something, then walks into the elevator and pushes the button to lower herself to the ER. She leans against the wall and rubs her eyes with the heels of her hands. In the last few weeks, Kim has become a regular presence in the ER again, and for the first time since Sandy's death there have been a few strange and wonderful moments when Abby has actually caught Dr. Weaver looking happy. And also a few times when she's caught herself being distracted by the sight of blond hair in a crowd. Whenever Kim is around, she seems to make a point of seeking her out, at least to say hello--and Abby has decided to be honest with herself about the degree to which she enjoys the company and attention, Kim's reserved and quiet beauty, incongruous lopsided grin and loud, easy laugh--and especially the light touches which she's sure Kim would describe as moments of intimacy born of friendship. At first it had been only a hand resting on her shoulder or arm to show sympathy or emphasize a point. But then it had become fingertips lightly touching her hair, and today, the rose scented palm cupping Abby's cheek.
Abby shivers and the elevator door slides open, revealing the noises and smells and movement of the ER stretched out before her. God knows her life is already complicated enough. The last thing she needs, she tells herself, is ambiguous flirtation with her boss's girlfriend.
She spots Dr. Weaver immediately, her left hand resting flat on the countertop for balance, her brow deeply furrowed as she contemplates some troubling or confusing task.
Abby walks past her, all stooped shoulders and nonchalance. "Dr. Weaver," she says quietly, "You're wanted on the roof."
Kerry looks up at the clock in alarm. "Oh, my God." She frantically tries to straighten the stack of paper work sitting before her on the counter, then gives up and shoves it, still disheveled, into a folder.
Abby leans against the wall, arms crossed and watches as Kerry almost stumbles in her haste to reach the elevator and move skyward toward her lover. "You're welcome," she says quietly as the elevator door slides closed.
When Kerry steps out onto the roof, she's momentarily dazzled by the rich brightness. She stares out at the view, then focuses on Kim standing on the brink, the roof between them a tapestry of bright puddles full of sky.
"It's gorgeous up here," she says just loudly enough for Kim to hear, then moves across the expanse of the roof to stand beside her. As the shadows have lengthened, the wind has died down, and now the late afternoon feels hushed and calm.
When Kim rests a hand lightly on her shoulder, Kerry neither moves closer nor backs away. It's been several weeks since their first phone conversation. Things are going well, Kim thinks. They've become casual with each other again: they seem to feel comfortable together and can speak easily. But they've barely touched. She realizes they're still in the mode of "taking it slowly," but she's not sure how to even begin to move the weighty things that still stand between them: fear, grief, lack of trust.
"Sorry I kept you waiting," Kerry says quietly.
"That's ok. Abby and I had a nice talk." For the moment, Kim's mind shies away from thoughts of the unending complexity of her friendships.
"She reminded me that you were up here."
Kim simply nods. They're both leaning on the wall on the roof's edge, and Kim is looking at Kerry's profile as Kerry stares out at the view.
"Wow," Kim breaths.
"You're always beautiful, Kerry, but in this light...." Kim puts a hand to her chest and taps her fingers there, rapidly, on the spot above her heart.
Kerry smiles and dips her head. Kim can see the color rising in her face.
"Kerry, you're blushing."
Kerry presses her hands to her cheeks to cool their sudden heat. "Stop teasing me," she says, but her voice betrays how much she's enjoying the attention.
Kim decides to voice her concerns. "Kerry, do you still feel ok about things--about the way things are between us?"
Kerry looks up quickly. "Yes," she says. "You?"
"If you feel ok, then so do I."
"That's not a very convincing answer," Kerry says doubtfully.
"Well, it's the answer I have right now." As Kim speaks, a sudden gust of wind sends ripples across the puddles around them and startles a flock of pigeons from the next roof-top into sudden flight. They both duck reflexively and raise their hands above their heads as they're engulfed in bird shadow and the soft, frantic pulse of beating wings.
"Tah-dah!" Kim swings the door open and Kerry steps into the small apartment and surveys the room before her, its walls bare, its contents only a large gray couch, a wooden table with 2 straight back chairs, and a red 10-speed bike leaning against the far wall. At the restaurant, when Kerry had suggested they come to Kim's place to continue to conversation they'd begun earlier on the rooftop, Kim had warned her it wasn't much to see.
"Hmmmm," Kerry says. "Well, it's...."
"I know it doesn't exactly reflect my personality," Kim admits. "When I moved out to San Francisco, I got rid of so much junk, and I've been trying hard in the last few years not to acquire much. I decided it would be nice to have a lighter load."
"Sure, but a few pictures on the walls might be nice...." Kerry is trying to decide: couch or table, and finally slides into one of the table's uncomfortable looking chairs.
Kim takes note of this and tries not to be disappointed as she moves off toward the kitchen. "Join me in a cup of tea?"
"Black? Green? Herbal?"
"Whatever you're having is fine, Kim." Her eyes sweep the room again and fail to find anything noteworthy to rest upon except a fine gray crumbling of dirt on the hard-wood floor around the tires of the bike and a brown water stain in a high corner of one wall. She looks up at Kim when she walks back in from the kitchen. "You really live here?" she asks, her tone incredulous.
Kim slides into the chair across form her. "Well, ok, to be honest, since I've been back in Chicago I've spent most of my time elsewhere. But at the moment, yes, I live here."
"Where else have you been?"
Kim fidgets with one of the silver rings she's wearing. "When I came back from San Francisco, I wasn't sure I'd be staying in Chicago, so rather than getting my own place, I lived with Christy for awhile."
Kerry visibly tenses when she hears that name.
"But that didn't exactly work out very well."
"Were you... I mean.... What kind of 'live with' was it?"
Here we go, Kim thinks. "At first it was just the friendly kind, but then...."
"Oh, God," Kerry's expression is one of true horror.
"Yeah. That was a big mistake. A BIG mistake. Then I stayed with Kate for awhile." Kim notices the look on Kerry's face and quickly adds, "she was just being a good friend. But she's Christy's friend, too, and Christy wasn't speaking to me, so that didn't work out very well either." She sighs. "And then I got this place. But then I met Tommy, and I ended up spending most of my time over there...."
"Yeah. She plays bass in a rock band--'Little Miss.' They used to play around town a lot. Maybe you've heard of them?"
"Well, anyway, she's in Detroit now."
"Wow, this is getting complicated."
Kim glances up at her and smiles sheepishly. "Yeah, believe me, I know." The tea kettle begins to whistle. "Great timing," Kim murmurs as she gets up quickly and moves to the kitchen.
"Whatever happened with that Lori?" Kerry asks loudly after her.
Kim pauses in the kitchen doorway and turns to Kerry. "Who?" she asks, looking genuinely confused. Then, "Oh, right. That. Her." She purses her lips, gives Kerry a long look, then disappears into the kitchen. Kerry uses the moment of privacy to massage her forehead with the heels of her hands.
When Kim reappears with two steaming mugs, Kerry quickly drops her hands and picks up where she left off. "I guess if you barely remember her name then I shouldn't be excessively jealous."
Kim sets the mugs on the table, takes her place across form Kerry, and runs her fingers through her hair. "That was never very serious, Kerry. I was hurt. I was lonely. She was there...."
"Sounds very romantic." Kerry's voice is heavy with sarcasm. "Did it make you feel better?"
"Nope. Worse." Kim rests her hand on Kerry's wrist for a moment, then pulls it back again. "I didn't mean for you to know about it. That must have been so painful for you. I'm sorry."
Kerry shrugs. "Long time ago," she says, trying to sound dismissive. She runs her finger around the rim of her mug, noticing that the steam is minty, the tea water itself flecked green with floating leaves. "What about the man in San Francisco?"
"Bob. He's really a wonderful person, not just nice but good." Kim nods. "He's a police officer. I've known him for years--we worked together once. He helped me a lot when I first moved out there...."
Kim trails off and she fiddles with the cuff of her pale blue shirt, unbuttoning it, then buttoning it again. Kerry lets the subject lie. "And then you said there were some women in San Francisco...."
"Do you remember their names?"
"Of course I do, Kerry. I'm not that bad."
Kerry gives her a measured look.
"Lisa, Phyllis, Rachel," Kim begins ticking the names off on her fingers. "Barbara, Susan..." she turns her head to the side, thinking hard. "Yeah, that's it."
"Depressing," Kim corrects.
"So why did you come back here? I mean, all I've ever heard about San Francisco is how wonderful it is. Was it because of Bob? Or Lisa, Phyllis, Rachel..."
"No. Well, not exactly. Things there just weren't as easy as I thought they'd be. I mean, I'd felt so strongly that I had to get away from here, but then after awhile out there, I realized I still had all the same problems--that I hadn't been able to escape them just by moving. That might seem obvious--a real no-brainer for a psychiatrist, but I guess we all have to learn. Anyway, out there, I had no support network, and here I did. So I came back."
"Sounds like things didn't get any easier."
"No. I leaned so hard on my support network that I broke it all to pieces, and then I was REALLY miserable." She laughs quietly and shakes her head. "The things we do to ourselves sometimes...."
Kerry glances up at Kim nervously. "So where are you at with things now, if you don't mind my asking. I mean, how do I fit into all this?"
Kim grimaces. "I must seem completely flighty and unstable to you now. A really bad risk."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I've been alone for the last year. I decided awhile back that I needed some time to just be by myself and think."
Kerry gestures around the room. "But not decorate?"
Kim smiles. "Well, I've been busy. With work. And I've been running a lot."
"Re-channeling your energies?"
Kerry points at herself. "Rowing machine," she says. Kim reaches over and lightly squeezes a hard biceps, and smiles, but then her face turns serious again. "Kerry, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"
"Sure--only fair. Shoot."
Kim decides to dive right in. "Did you ever regret it--not defending me?"
"Of course I regretted it! I regretted it as it was happening. I regretted every second of it. I knew it was wrong, I was wrong. I knew I was being weak, giving in to fear.... I could feel you watching me. The biggest part of me wanted to rush across the room and strangle Romano and save you--be your hero, but I was paralyzed. I couldn't do it."
Kerry face is red and she's gesticulating wildly. Her eyes are wide and seem lit from within. An image flashes through Kim's mind of a sizzling flame reaching the end of a fuse on a cartoon bomb, and the resulting spectacular blast. She puts her hand on Kerry's arm. "Ok, Kerry. It's ok. I'm sorry I asked. It was a stupid question."
Kerry takes a deep breath and tries to push the memory away. "No. You had a right to ask," she says, her expression quickly calming. "I remember once when I was driving on an icy road in winter and I lost control of the car--did a complete 360 degree spin and ended up in the ditch. It was the same feeling, the same sense of helplessness and fear--having no control, just sitting back and watching a disaster unfold."
Kim nods. "I can't remember ever being so angry," she says. "God, what an awful day."
They sit quietly for awhile, both grimly remembering. "Can I ask you another question, Kerry?" Kim says finally, sounding uncertain.
Kerry's answer is more guarded this time. "Yeah. Go ahead."
"Why did you wait so long to give me the letter?"
Kerry sighs and taps her brow, trying to bring back the person she had been 5 years ago so she can explain her own actions. "Honestly--truly--part of me never believed that we would last anyway--it seemed too good to be true. You were so...." When Kerry looks up now, Kim sees a flash of an expression she remembers well: tenderness, adoration, desire. She feels a quick burst of warmth in her chest like a match sharply struck and then snuffed out.
"'Pushy?'" Kim tries to finish Kerry's sentence.
Kerry laughs. "Actually, I was thinking 'beautiful' and 'charming,' but that seemed inadequate."
Kim gives her a look of incredulity and points her finger at her own chest. Kerry laughs again.
"So, anyway, when things fell apart, I thought 'well, that's that.'" She holds a hand out, palm up, in a gesture of helplessness. "I guess part of me suspected that you never really cared for me anyway and that you were using the Shannon Wallace situation as an excuse to get away. I thought if you really cared about me...really loved me, that you would have forgiven me--returned my calls, talked to me about it. I wasn't hopeful that the letter would change anything."
"God, Kerry, you really thought that? That I never cared about you?"
Kerry nods and shrugs. "It was painful, but it was easier to believe that than to believe the alternative: that I had done something unforgivable and destroyed a relationship that could have been wonderful. It was easier to tell myself that it had never been real--that there had been nothing real to lose."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, this long after the fact, you were part of the reason I came back," Kim admits quietly. "I was planning to look you up--to see if enough time had passed so that maybe you had come to grips with things and we could forgive each other--maybe start over...."
"But I was with Sandy."
"But you were with Sandy."
There's a silence that stretches until it becomes uncomfortable. They both take long sips of their cooling tea.
"So if you thought I didn't care, then why give me the letter at all?" Kim says suddenly.
"Weeeell," Kerry breaths the word like a sigh, "at some point I realized that I couldn't go back, couldn't go back to the way things had been, that I had changed too much, and all I could see in the direction of moving forward was you. And if not you, then no one. Nothing."
"Sounds like a bad place to be," Kim says. "Lonely."
Kerry nods. "Not just lonely, but anticipating a life of loneliness. Dreading it. That may sound overly dramatic, but I think it's a valid fear. Lots of people die lonely and alone. I see it all the time. It's not uncommon."
"Maybe because you see it all the time, you think it's more common than it is."
"I suppose that's possible." Kerry says, but looks unconvinced. She remains lost in thought for a few moments, and then asks her own question. "If I had given you the letter earlier, would it have made a difference?"
"No," Kim says. "Anyway, I doubt it. Probably not. I want to be honest about this, Kerry: I think I was right to leave you. I was completely willing to give you time to come to terms with things, to catch up with the enormous changes in your life, but only if you could do it in a way that didn't hurt and exclude me. And it just seemed like that wouldn't be possible."
Kerry nods again, silently accepting this.
"I'm no martyr." Kim says, a hint of old hurt in her voice.
"Ok--I get it," Kerry says sharply.
Kim feels things deteriorating and tries to redirect the conversation. "It made me cry," she says, and when she sees the confusion on Kerry's face, adds "the letter. It made me feel so helpless, knowing that we cared about each other but couldn't stop hurting each other. What a terrible time."
"That's an understatement." Kerry glances at Kim, suddenly shy. "You know, it was the first time I'd ever had my heart broken. It was a shock, that feeling. I think it's like chickenpox: it's much harder when you're no longer young. More of a shock to the system. I think that might have been why I stayed away from women for so long. I could sense how intense it might be--how dangerous."
Kerry nods, smiling sadly. "And wonderful."
"If you don't mind my asking," Kim says carefully, "why did you finally come out at work? What happened?"
Kerry puts up one of her hands as if fending off an accusation. "Ok, first of all, I don't think the work 'finally' really belongs in that sentence. Some people stay closeted their whole lives. For me it was barely a year."
"Ok, fair enough."
"And then Sandy kissed me in the main corridor of the ER, in front of Malik, Chen, and Abby."
"Oh, my God!"
Kerry laughs. "I always love how people react to that story. At the time, it was pretty bad, though. I was furious. We fought, and then we didn't speak for months."
"Good lord, Kerry. How did you patch things up? And why?"
"There was a fire and I was worried that she might have been hurt. She was actually fine, but it made me realized that I really cared about her. And that she could die anytime--that I could lose her before we even had the chance to be together. I went after her, we worked things out."
"Wow. This has all the elements of a great novel," Kim says. "Love, conflict, separation, reconciliation...."
"Public humiliation...," Kerry adds, "...heroism, death...." Her voice trails off and then she chuckles dryly. "It even started on a dark and stormy night."
Kim watches her, trying to guess at the depths of her emotions. Her eyes downcast, she's lost in her own unfathomable thoughts and memories, and Kim wants more than anything to kiss her so that for a second they can be in that time together. So that they can both feel comforted. But she doesn't.
"These are some pretty hard things to talk about, aren't they?" she says gently. "We've covered lots of territory tonight." Kerry nods.
"It's not easy, but I'm glad that we can talk like this. I think it's important to gets things out in the open. To be honest, I was starting to feel like we were sort of stuck, I think we have to get all this out before we can move forward."
Kim is looking intensely at Kerry, willing her to look up and meet her gaze.
I guess that's probably true." Kerry says vaguely, feeling Kim's eyes on her, but continuing to stare at her own hands on the table top.
"When I was in Africa," Kerry says, then glances up into Kim's eyes, falters, and starts again. "Once, in Kenya, I had my palm read by a fortune teller." She lays her palm out on the table and traces the lines. "She was an old, old woman. She hobbled along with a cane. She was slow, but she traveled everywhere. She was famous. I remember when I saw her, she was in the middle of a crowd of people, and she had her head wrapped in a bright red cloth with green stripes. It made me homesick because it reminded me of Christmas." She pauses and glances up at Kim who's watching her talk, leaning forward slightly in a practiced posture of intent and active listening.
"When she told my fortune," Kerry continues, "she touched my hand like this," she lifts Kim's hand off the table top, holds it palm up, and sweeps her own palm across it, creating a momentary, smooth friction between their skin. "It was such a simple kind of touch, but in that single second, all of the stress and tension drained from my body. I don't really know why, but I swear, in my whole life, that's the moment when I felt most relaxed and at peace."
They look at each other and each takes a long, slow breath. Kerry slides her palm across Kim's again, and then their fingers lace together.
"Holding hands," Kerry says. "It's not much, is it. Maybe it seems childish."
Kim shakes her head.
"I'm sorry, but right now, I think it's all I can do. Is that ok?"
"Of course it's ok." Kim gently squeezes her hand. "Whatever you want to do is ok."
Kerry lifts Kim's hand to her face, still clasped tightly in her own. She presses it to her cheek and closes her eyes for a moment, then lowers both of their hands to the table top again. "It's not that I don't want.... It's just that...." Kerry stares into Kim's eyes, trying to communicate her own confusion and desire.
Kim meets her gaze evenly. "Kerry," she says, "you don't have to explain."
"And you don't have to say thank you."