They call it the Drug Lockup of Love, and when they do, they stretch out the "o" far beyond the normal limits of English pronunciation. You don't get it. It must be some sort of joke from a TV program they all watched when they were young, something that was never broadcast in the UK. Like telling someone to smeg off or giggling drunkenly down the streets of Lovely Scenic Cambridge checking every telephone box to see if it was the TARDIS. You know that if you asked Mark, he'd only smile and say, "Well, you know."
No, he wouldn't say anything. He's never going to say anything ever again, damn him. Fuck him. Fucking fuckity fuck, and aren't we a sparkling role model for our infant daughter today?
You are here in the Drug Lockup of Loooooove because this is where you found Abby, and you have for over a week been meaning to tell her that you are sorry about her brother, truly sorry, and it's probably none of your business, but you just want her to know how... sorry. You have heard this speech too many times to count in the past year. I'm sorry, so sorry. If there's anything I can do, give me a ring.
She says that he's not dead. They found his plane. They found it tied down, and that is worse, knowing that what he wanted was not to die but to be away from her. You tell her not to take it personally but it is always personal when someone leaves, whether they intend it to be or not. She says that you are the first person to say that to her. She thinks that you might know. The truth is that you forgot how to lie when you lost him. Your husband, not her brother, and dead, not somewhere. You hold her. She is not crying, but shaking. You hold her and her head is pressed against your chest. Scrubs are thin and your bra is silk and you can feel too much of her across your nipples and through your body like you can sense the path of every nerve ending joining in thicker and thicker branches, then spreading out again.
You have not thought about this in a long time and you do not want to be thinking it now. Her lips the same gray as the rest of her face, hair falling into her red eyes. You kiss her forehead. She looks up at you and says this was what she wanted, holding. Carter stays the night but he just rolls over. Her feet are cold and she might as well be alone. You hold and you tell yourself that you want to hold, but when she kisses you know that she knows that you want to kiss. The locked cabinets rattle and bang. You close your eyes and fantasize an interruption. Greg Pratt taking pictures to sell on the internet. They are not bad fantasies.
She pushes you back against the chain-link grate and you can feel marks digging into your skin. She straddles your thigh. You know to tell her to stop and wake up from this but then you would not have her. You squeeze your hand into the tight space between your leg and her groin, find her clit with your thumb through her scrubs, rub hard across and she lets out gasps. You grind against her thigh and don't care if you come, but she finds a space with her fingers. The silk slips against you, grows slick. You come quietly against three fingers and two layers of thin fabric.
She says she's sorry as she leaves. You tell her, don't worry, and you are not just dismissing the apology but everything that should not be a worry. You are the one who should be sorry, sorry to have to waddle to the supply closet for a pair of unsoiled scrub bottoms and stand all afternoon performing surgery in sticky silk underwear, sorry that you won't have her again.
Kerry wasn't there. It's not that she wasn't in the building, but she had three managerial meetings and no actual shift, so if anyone was looking for her, she wasn't. Susan, on the other hand, was the attending on duty, and therefore most definitely there in the land of "Let's celebrate St. Patrick's Day by vomiting in violent green." Long live Ireland.
Kerry was done with her Senior Management meeting and her Health and Safety Committee meeting, so she was sitting in the lounge driving Susan crazy. It wasn't intentional: if any other employee of Cook County General's Emergency Services Department were asked what Kerry was doing, they would have said something about the Metro section of the Tribune and a sandwich from Panera. But the sight of Kerry hanging out in the lounge was killing Susan. Susan knew when Kerry was bored, and she knew how to keep Kerry busy.
"All right," Susan announced from the admit desk at exactly 12:30 PM, "I'm officially on my lunch break." Haleh and Randi, who were standing nearby, looked at her skeptically. She added, "If you need something, bother the residents."
Susan crossed the hall to the lounge, wondering if it was in any way possible for her to make herself more obvious. She loomed over the oblivious Kerry for a moment, then placed a cold hand on Kerry's shoulder. Kerry jumped and dropped her newspaper. "Still not here?" Susan said.
"That's my official position," Kerry said.
"I'm on my lunch break," Susan said. "Wanna go... not have sex?"
"Not here," Kerry said.
"Of *course* not here. In the... no, wait, there's a toilet backed up. That office on the third floor?" Officially, Kerry borrowed that office for prospective-staff interviews and administrative business. Unofficially, Kerry used it for Susan.
"Lent it out to Abby and Yosh to interview nursing assistants." Kerry had promoted Abby to Nurse Manager a few months earlier, and Abby was approaching the job with a purposefulness that bordered on fascism. Kerry and Abby worked disturbingly well together. There were an awful lot of memos. Carter was starting to talk about staging a coup.
"Well... there's this storage room on the pedes floor."
"Doug Ross's storage room?" Kerry said.
"You know about the storage room?"
"I *caught* them in that storage room once. Him and Carol."
Susan didn't want to know any details, and she could feel her hour shrinking. "Is it-- is it okay with you?"
"Are you kidding? I've always *wanted* to have sex in that storage room." Kerry had plans and aspirations, not to mention a sense of humor, that even after a year with her, Susan didn't fully understand. She liked that Kerry was complicated and indirect, that knowing her was hard work. It kept things interesting; it kept Susan from running away.
They caught an elevator and, after a few bad guesses, found the famous storage room. In addition to a variety of long-forgotten and out-of-date housekeeping supplies, it contained a cot made up with clean linens. There were also, Susan noticed, two small red candles and a very large box of condoms, the latter obviously stolen from the stock they distributed from a goldfish bowl at the admit desk. Somebody else was unquestionably using this room. Susan suspected Yosh and that paramedic he was still dating, but she wasn't the kind to start rumors.
They sat down on the bed. Kerry kicked off her shoes. Susan pushed her down on the bed and unzipped her fly. "Slow down," Kerry said.
"I haven't got that much time," Susan said. "I've got to get back downstairs."
"Then you should be the one to go first," Kerry said. She sat up and kissed Susan's lips. Then, swiftly enough that Susan couldn't try to stop her, she swung into Susan's lap and started kissing Susan's neck. She sucked and nipped, but carefully, not leaving any marks until she reached Susan's shoulder and sunk her teeth in. Susan moaned. Kerry unbuttoned Susan's shirt but didn't take it off, just pushed it back and teased her breasts through her bra. Kerry had some kind of wild control thing going on. It was probably Abby's bad influence.
This was not to say that Susan minded. If anything, she wished that Kerry would go slower.
Kerry finally got around to unbuttoning Susan's pants and pressing her back onto the cot. She rolled Susan's panties down just far enough, and the elastic strained around Susan's thighs. Kerry stroked Susan's clit lightly with her tongue, so lightly that it tickled and made Susan squirm in agony. "Harder," Susan said. She shouldn't have been surprised that Kerry listened. Kerry always listened. She drummed her tongue into Susan's clit, vibrated it fast. Susan clenched her toes in her shoes and strained her knees against the fabric of her pants. She always came slowly when Kerry ate her out, but she loved the slow build, the plateaus where she felt close but not close enough. And she loved the heat in her face, her breasts, her feet, the heat in her voice when she said Kerry's name with complete certainty, knowing that it was never going to be anyone else ever again.
Susan stood up from the cot and started buttoning her shirt. "I need to go back," she said.
Kerry consulted her watch. "You could still take 20 more minutes."
"I'm the only attending on duty," Susan said. "If I leave the ER alone any longer..."
"Don't finish that sentence. Go back. I'll make the bed."
"How can you make the bed," Susan said, "when you're not even here?"
"I have my ways."
"I'll have time for you tonight," Susan said. "I promise. I'm sorry."
"How about I see you at home, and you make it up to me then?"
"I'll be there," Susan said.
It wasn't a lesbian bar. All of the lesbian bars were halfway across town from the hospital, and I didn't have the energy for an evening alone with a glass of wine and a roomful of rejections. What I needed was a drink, so I was having one at a bar two blocks from work. It was a relentlessly ugly place, with dark wood paneling and framed photos of Depression-era Chicago in a half-assed effort at a gangster theme. As usual, the place was full of cops and paramedics. I'd forgotten it would be that way. I'd thought I would feel safe and anonymous, not helplessly reminded of a woman who loved me but not quite enough to have my baby.
I'd held off on the drinking for three days. I'd gone home to my girlfriend and discovered that I couldn't explain anything. It had taken her a day to even ask what happened, and when she had, all I'd been able to say was, "A patient died who shouldn't have." If I told Sandy that it was my fault, she would call the police. It was bad enough that the circle of protection was weak at the center. I had watched Jonathan's back for no less a reason than the belief that he might make the world better. It was depressing to know that I couldn't trust my lover to give me that much. Depressing enough that I'd needed to find a quiet place to drown myself.
I had my anonymity for two glasses of surprisingly decent Merlot. I half-watched the basketball game on the bar TV and daydreamed about women who wouldn't make me feel like I was settling for the first tolerable thing I'd found. Then, Abby walked in. The last thing I needed was a co-worker to find me soaking my misery. I kept my head down, although I knew that between my hair and my crutch, she'd recognize me right away.
It seemed that she was trying to go incognito, too. She sat at the other end of the bar, under the TV set, and ordered one of those mixed drinks that contains about seven different kinds of alcohol and gets you drunk as quickly as possible. She looked up and met my eyes for a moment, then looked away almost bashfully. Her hair looked greenish in the wood-dulled light. She was prettier than Sandy. I felt guilty for letting myself think that, but not guilty enough to stop.
After my third glass of Merlot, I needed a trip to the washroom. Unfortunately, I had to go past Abby to get there. Sober, I would never have said anything. Tonight, I smiled and said hi as I walked by. On the way out of the restroom, she stopped me. "What're you in for, Dr. Weaver?" she said.
"Just having a glass of wine before I head home," I said.
"A glass or four?"
"Night is young," she said. She sized me up. "Yeah. You seem like a red wine."
"People are usually like what they drink," she said. "It's something you learn, hanging out in bars."
"Do you... hang out in a lot of bars?"
"Not so much anymore," she said, "and never on St. Patrick's Day."
"Yeah," I said. "I'm surprised it's so quiet."
"It's only the Irish bars," she said. "The ones with free-flowing green beer."
"They've got green beer here," I said. "The... bartender offered me some when I came in."
"Nah. You're a red wine. Green beer is like... the polar opposite of that."
"So... what are you?"
"Tonight," she said, "I'm an Irish Rainbow."
She had a half-full glass sitting in front of her. The contents looked like East African puddle water. "What's in it?"
"My best guess is whiskey, cherries, and kerosene," she said. "Want a sip?"
On any other night, I would have been sober enough to say no. As it was, I took the dare. "That's *terrible.*"
"I shouldn't be drinking," she said, "so I'm punishing myself with something that tastes... like that."
"Why shouldn't you be drinking?"
"I'm an alcoholic," she whispered giddily. She downed the rest of her drink.
"I... didn't know," I said.
"I would never come to work drunk or anything. I have that much self-control." She waved down the bartender. "Another one of these for me," she said, "and another glass of wine for my boss."
"Thanks, but actually... I ought to get going. But thank you."
"Don't you know you should never drink alone?" she said. "Never, *ever* drink alone." She patted the empty stool next to her. It would have been against my better judgement to sit down, but when I drink, my better judgement is the first thing to go.
"So, why are you here?" I said.
"Don't want to talk about it," she said. "Never talk about why you're drinking. Always talk about something else."
The bartender brought us our drinks. "They're on me," I said. She started to shake her head, but I repeated, "They're on me, and don't let her say otherwise."
"Tell me about Africa," she said, when the bartender had left us to attend to other business.
"How do you know I lived in Africa?"
"I didn't know you *lived* there," she said. "I know you *went* there on vacation a couple of years ago." She knocked back most of her drink in a couple of gulps. I sipped my wine cautiously. "He told me he'd take me all kinds of places. But you know what? It's been seven months, and I haven't been anywhere I hadn't been before. Oak Park and Ne-fucking-braska. He goes to fucking Belize and whatever, and here I am. Here."
"He'd take you anywhere you wanted to go," I said.
"No, he wouldn't," she said. "He'd talk and talk and talk about it, but he doesn't want to go with me. He wants to go on his own."
"Kenya was beautiful," I said. I needed to change the subject. It wasn't my place to get between them. "I lived there for almost two years. It was hot; everyone was poor; I was sick all the time... But I felt like I was accomplishing something. I felt like I knew what I was there for. I haven't felt that way since. I guess-- I guess that's why I haven't been able to go back."
"You did," she said. "A couple of years ago."
"I didn't go," I admitted. "I-- I was planning on it, but-- I went to Michigan. To the Womyn's Festival. I... needed to be sure, I guess. And it worked. I knew. And then... I didn't want anyone else to, so... I just said. That I'd been to Africa."
She flagged the bartender and ordered another Irish Rainbow. "Another glass of wine for you, ma'am?" the bartender asked.
"Why the hell not?" I said.
I finished that glass of wine and a glass after it; Abby choked down another three rainbows. Our conversation became a blur of laughter. "I should have bought the whole bottle," I said.
"They should bottle rainbows," Abby said. She teetered on her barstool.
"Are you okay, Abby?"
"Yeah," she said. "Mostly. Except for the... I think maybe there's about three of you, and is that way up?" She pointed to the floor. "Because that's the way-- the way my stomach's going. That way. Up!" She giggled until she tumbled off the stool.
I managed to get down from my own stool without falling over. "Abby," I said, helping her to her feet. "Abby, let's go to the bathroom and wash your face. Let's go. Come on." Luckily, the ladies' room was only a few feet away. She tripped over her feet as I locked the door, and she scooted to sit cross-legged facing the toilet.
"Cold water," she said. "Cold, 'cause I'm all hot." She pulled her sweater over head and threw it on the floor. "Too hot. Way too hot for St. Patrick's Day." She sat in her bra and chinos, waiting for me to wet some paper towels. I wiped her face with them, ran them down her neck, her shoulders, her spine. The sight of her glistening skin was too much for me. I kissed my path in reverse: spine, shoulders, neck, jawline. She might have been too drunk to resist me. I was too drunk, myself, to recognize the difference between consent and surrender.
I rolled the straps of her bra down her arms and unhooked the clasp. Her nipples were bright against her pale skin. I tasted them, and she leaned back into my lap. I stroked her belly while I sucked on her nipples, but she guided my hand downward. She'd opened the fly of her jeans, and she wasn't wearing panties. I raked my fingers through the rough hair, and she jerked upward, pushing her breast into my mouth. I eased her jeans off her hips and teased her clit while she kicked them off the rest of the way. "More," she said. "Fill me up. All the way. I tried to have a drink, but I don't feel full." I pushed my fingers into her: one, two, three. When she moaned, I covered her mouth with my other hand. Her hair dragged back and forth along the bathroom floor as she thrashed against my fingers.
She lay across my lap, breasts rising and falling with her shallow postcoital breaths. "Still got my socks on," she said.
"It's time to go home," I said. "I think it's time to go home."
"Wanna share a cab?"
"You get your clothes on," I said. "I'll go have the bartender call us one."
She dozed off in the taxi, and I didn't know where she lived. That was the first night she spent at my house, and the first time I made her coffee and eggs in the morning. It was far from the last.
No matter how much it is my place too now, I think of it as Susan's apartment. When I tried having my own apartment, it didn't work, and a few times I've caught myself saying that I was going home when I meant I was going here. But mostly I keep up the charade. "I'm going back to Susan's after work," like I have any other place to go anymore. We sold half my stuff and moved the rest back to this one-bedroom barely big enough for one, let alone the two of us, who take up so much space. We talked once about finding somewhere with more space, but it wasn't a long talk. Susan says this apartment has good chi or good vibes or something. That's why she picked it in the first place. I only know that everything that happened in my old apartment seemed like disaster (now practice losing farther, faster), while everything now seems like a box that I can climb out of.
Susan brings home a bag from the grocery store. A few things we needed plus all the ingredients for hot fudge sundaes. She says she wants to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, which is why she bought mint chocolate chip, but I know that we are celebrating the marriage of chocolate sauce and ice cream. And also, possibly, the fact that she likes watching me knot cherry stems with my tongue.
I spent my afternoon off vacuuming the bedroom and mopping the kitchen and watching TV. I don't walk around the apartment in boxer shorts and an old sweatshirt just because she likes it, but I do it *knowing* that she likes me in clothes that are soft and easy to take off. She smiles when she puts the grocery bag down, hooks her thumb in the waistband of my shorts and kisses me. Asks me, "Did you leave a window open?"
"Yeah," I say. "I was smoking." I go to close it and she takes out bowls. When I come back, I arrange everything in an assembly line while she puts the jar of fudge in the microwave. She won't care about assembling sundaes in the right order, but we won't get in each other's way that way. I'm creating the illusion of space.
We make our sundaes and sit down on the couch side by side to eat them. She gets whipped cream on the tip of her nose and gets up to find a napkin, but I stop her and lick it off. We leave our half-finished sundaes to melt while we kiss. I push her sweater over her head, ball it up, and toss it into the bedroom. In a bra and Dockers, she is as sexy as if she were naked. Like she's more vulnerable, more innocent.
She runs her hands under my sweatshirt and teases my nipples until I am unsteady on my feet. I tell her to wait and throw off my shirt. While I'm distracted, she grabs the jar of fudge from the table. She waits until I'm watching to dip her fingers in. I raise her hand to my lips and lick off the dripping chocolate in a long stroke. Then, I take her fingers deep into my mouth and suck hard. She moans like I have possession of something more sensitive than her hand.
When I release her fingers, she presses me down onto the couch. Smiling ominously, she scoops up more chocolate. She leans down and kisses me, lunging her tongue in my mouth like she wants to steal the taste of her fingers. A drop of chocolate lands between my breasts. Inspired, she paints me with warm fudge: draws round moons on my stomach, swirls spiraling galaxies outward from my nipples. Then, slowly, she licks up her artwork. She lingers on my breasts until she's cleaned off every streak and then some, until my nipples shiver slick and hard and the rest of me is aching wet.
I get a grip on her belt loops and pull her hips toward me. When I unbuckle her belt, she knows what I want. Before Susan, I didn't think it was possible to have a lover who could know, without asking, what I wanted. She takes off her pants and her underwear like they are too much and in the way. I take a fingerful of fudge from the jar and spread it between the lips of her vulva. "Don't tease me," she says. I lay her back and lick her clean, making jokes in my mind about gourmet chocolate-covered clitoris. I stay there long after the chocolate is gone, drawing out long moans like cherry stems.
She can tell by looking when I am hot and close. I smile and beg her with my hips. She sticks a finger through the flap of my boxer shorts and rubs my clit hard. I press back against her. Just when I think that she plans to bring me off this way, she slides her finger inside me. That's a tease, but I don't mind-- I like it when she takes her time with me. She wants to make me plead for it. When I do, she adds one more finger, and it is plenty to get me there.
The sugar is drying on my skin, and I need a shower. "But we haven't even *started* with the whipped cream yet," Susan whines. She is being silly, but she means it.
"Keep it in the fridge," I say, "for tomorrow." We can save things that long, can wait.
They all get married. All of them, some two or three times, all except Susan, thirty-seven years old and still single. She's never even lived with anyone. Most of the time, she doesn't mind. Some days, when her apartment is quiet and she has no responsibility to anybody, she likes it, being alone. But just when she's made peace with her marital status, some old friend goes and throws a wedding. She has to drive out to Buffalo Grove alone with her CD player and wonder why she-- well, she would say, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride," but she's only a guest this time. She hasn't been a bridesmaid in years. Her friends think it would add insult to injury. It wouldn't bother Susan much, but she's glad to wear a dress that looks good on her.
She is driving in sneakers and her new dark-gold dress, chosen last week because it doesn't make her look fatter than necessary. Her matching shoes and purse bounce in the passenger seat. She pulls into the Buffalo Grove Radisson parking lot, a stretch of asphalt vaster than empires and much less crowded. She cuts the engine, changes her shoes, swings the strap of her purse over her shoulder, leaves her overnight bag in the car. Flips her hair and adjusts the bodice of her dress as she stalks inside.
She checks in to the hotel and buries the key in her purse, then finds the ballroom where the ceremony is being held. She's seated on the bride's side among Stacy's friends, most of whom have school-age children who fidget and whine in their good clothes. They look at Susan only long enough to wonder who she is, this woman who had time to buy a new dress and style her hair. She wants to say that she hardly has time to breathe. She is still working twelve-hour shifts like a resident. She spent two years in private practice in Scottsdale, and they were like a slow death. She wants to die hot and bright, in new gold shoes.
The ceremony flashes by like the short version in the Princess Bride. It's Stacy's second marriage, and no matter how hard everyone tries, it's tough to take second weddings seriously. Everybody knows that both bride and groom made these vows once and reneged.
Susan follows the swarm of guests to the banquet room down the hall. Table fourteen could very well be the ex-boyfriends table, and she's almost hoping for it. I Am Stacy's Lesbian Experiment. But no, it is the worst possible thing: the group of friends she and Stacy shared in medical school, all of them shiny and old-looking and clearly in possession of much higher bank balances than Susan's. They weren't even Susan's friends, really. They were Stacy's friends and Mark's friends. Susan was the little sister, the little secret girlfriend, along for the ride. They greet Susan politely, like they all know where she's been and are afraid of touching her.
And then there is the seat that is filled by Elizabeth Corday. Susan wants to demand an explanation, but Elizabeth hands it to her right after "hello." "They were such good friends, she and Mark," Elizabeth says. "I thought I ought to come, just-- on his behalf."
"She's probably thrilled that you made the effort," somebody's wife says. Susan is taking off her shoes under the table. Elizabeth gives Susan an extra smile but says nothing else.
There are toasts and speeches during the appetizers and the salad course, so Susan doesn't have to make small talk with these people who, fifteen years on, seem to be hanging on to resentment like they've got nothing better to do. After that, though, the main course is served, and the eight couples at the table make a point of not talking to Susan. She wonders if she has accidentally wandered into a junior high school nightmare. She notices that they are excluding Elizabeth, too-- not so pointedly, but because they don't know her. If Mark were around, she'd be his wife, and worth including; now, she is only a stranger he's left behind to go to weddings in his place. "So... these were your friends in medical school?" Elizabeth says to Susan.
Susan wants to be left alone to pick at her blasphemously well-done beef tenderloin. "Not really," she says. "I *knew* them, through Stacy and-- but they weren't-- I'm pretty sure they all hated me."
"They *have* been... cold," Elizabeth says.
"It doesn't bother me."
"They could still show some maturity."
"It was never one of their strengths," Susan says.
"This goes back longer and farther than I could possibly imagine, doesn't it?"
"It's not that complicated," Susan says. "Stacy and I went out for a while. Mark made an effort to make friends with me; the rest of them blamed me because I happened right after she broke up with a guy that they all liked better. And then Stacy decided she was straight and dumped me, but I stayed friends with Mark, so of *course* I was trying to seduce him away from Jen. It was all... stupid adolescent bullshit. People who had been so busy overachieving all their lives that they still behaved like twelve-year-olds."
"And are still behaving that way," Elizabeth says.
Susan shrugs. "It makes me look better in comparison, I guess." She chats harmlessly with Elizabeth and finishes her meal. She won't be getting drunk enough to need that hotel room. She will make herself look classier and more together than these people who should know better. There is something about the suburbs that takes away poise, or something about the city that infuses it. She is so much stronger than them. She was from the beginning.
Stacy and her new husband dance together to that Eric Clapton song that everyone picks for their first dance, and then Stacy and her father dance to Sinatra. The band opens up the floor to guests, and a dozen identical suburban doctor couples bounce and sway to the greatest wedding hits of the '80s. Most of them must still be in their thirties, but they look like their fires have been extinguished. Elizabeth must be looking down on them, too, because she says, "Dance with me."
"I... can't," Susan says.
"Can't be the kind of person who dances with women at weddings," Susan says.
"Aren't you, though?" Elizabeth says. "The kind of person who dances with women? At your ex-girlfriend's wedding, if nowhere else."
"Not anymore. I-- I still-- but I don't like to draw attention to the fact."
"You do anyway," Elizabeth says, sipping her wine.
"I do? I don't, do I?"
"You overcompensate. You talk too much about men. I-- I don't think that most people have noticed, but... it takes one to know one, I suppose."
"*You*?" Susan gasps.
"From time to time."
The wedding band is butchering "Safety Dance" in the way that only a wedding band can. "Dance with me," Susan says. She leads Elizabeth to the floor. They dance silly at first, twirling each other around, but the band switches to that Cars song, the slow one that was written by the other guy in The Cars who wasn't Ric Ocasek. "Who's gonna drive you hooooome... tonight?" The wedding band's singer is a woman, and the key is too low for her. Susan and Elizabeth dance stiffly, like they are fourteen and being monitored by their teachers, but Susan lets Elizabeth pull her closer. Now, it feels more like prom night, with Elizabeth's breasts pressed against hers and her arm around Elizabeth's waist. Perfect-world prom night, where you can take anyone you want, and you're old enough not to do anything stupid.
"I didn't know," Susan says. "About you."
"Funny how it works," Elizabeth says. "Marry one man, and suddenly, everyone assumes you're straight."
"I'll have to keep that in mind."
"You never will," Elizabeth says.
"That's awfully pessimistic."
"You're an idealist," Elizabeth says. "You're waiting for perfection. There are only two ways a person can go with that: settle for something less than perfect, or learn to appreciate being alone."
"How do you know these things about me?"
"Takes one to know one."
"But you got married," Susan says.
"Only once, late in life, and it wouldn't have lasted," says Elizabeth. "I'm trying to take the other route now." She kisses Susan's lips very gently.
"Not here," Susan says. "Not even to torture my ex."
"Where do you propose we go?" Elizabeth says.
"They haven't served the cake yet. I don't 'propose' we go anywhere until then."
The band strikes up a below-tempo rendition of "When I'm Sixty-Four," and it's an excuse not to dance so close. They do their best to bounce around in heels and dresses until Elizabeth points out caterers bearing dessert plates and the band segues into another dreaded slow song. Naturally, table fourteen is one of the last to be served. In the meantime, they talk about work, movies, the miracle of chocolate and peanut butter in combination. Anything not to acknowledge that when they finish their cake, they are going to run off somewhere and try to have better sex than the depressing newlyweds.
"You got a hotel room?" Elizabeth says. They are outside the ladies' room, formulating a plan. Susan has been waiting for five minutes, because they decided it would be too obvious if they left together. Susan didn't get a chance to congratulate the bride. She wonders if Stacy and her new husband started early.
"I thought the only way to get through this would be lots and lots of alcohol," Susan says.
"I should have thought of it," Elizabeth says. "I wasn't much looking forward to the prospect of driving home at this time of night."
Susan takes her watch out of her purse and laughs. "Morning," she says. "Almost morning."
"How did we manage to stay so late at such a dull wedding?"
"You're a good dancer," Susan says.
They find the elevator bay, catch a ride to the fourth floor, and locate Susan's room. It's one of those terrible rose-and-beige mass-produced rooms, and Susan has a powerful urge to defile it. "Dammit," she says. "I left my overnight bag in the car."
"Do you want to go and get it now?" Elizabeth offers sweetly.
Part of her does. She wants to hide in the delay, in the safety of pajamas, in the chance that she'll run into Stacy's mother in the lobby and talk herself out of sleeping with Mark's ex-wife. "Later," she says. "I'll get it later." She has everything she needs, anyway. Comb, lipstick, breath mints.
Beautiful woman unzipping her dress.
The cool, sterile hotel-room air trickles down Susan's back as Elizabeth lets the dress puddle to the floor. Susan turns around to face Elizabeth and reaches around her to even the score. Elizabeth's skin is soft as flowers. She catches Susan's lips in a kiss, and this time, Susan kisses back. She explores Elizabeth's mouth with her tongue. If she searches hard enough, she might find something there.
Susan's strapless bra started drifting southward when she was dancing, and now it slips far enough on the left to reveal half a nipple. Elizabeth pushes the bra farther down and strokes Susan's breast first with her fingers, then with her tongue. While she has Susan rapt, she gets Susan down on the bed. One of Susan's shoes doesn't complete the trip, and Susan shakes off the other. Elizabeth kneels on the bed and takes off her own bra, rolls her hose down slowly, takes off her underpants, throws everything on the floor. Reminds Susan how much more she has always loved women.
Susan takes off what's left of her own clothes. Elizabeth watches, just smiling. Susan was going to take it slow, play the romantic, but she's not going to last that long. She wraps her arms around Elizabeth and remembers: the hollow of a woman's throat, the feathery skin on the inside of forearms, the faint fragrance of flowers and fruit that builds up inevitably from shower gel, moisturizer, deodorant, cologne. She cups Elizabeth's right breast and swirls the nipple with her tongue, bites the soft flesh gently, realizes that breasts alone are inexhaustible. "I thought you didn't like to torture women," Elizabeth says.
"Only my ex-girlfriends," Susan stops to say. "Everyone else is fair game." She brushes the inside of Elizabeth's thigh, to see what will happen, and what she gets is a powerful shudder and a surge of relief that in her line of work, there's no sense letting her nails grow. She brushes again, this time closer in, and her hand comes away damp. It is so easy to push fingers into Elizabeth's vagina. Susan remembers that she has been with college girls and political dykes, not women with daughters of their own. Elizabeth takes four fingers as naturally as breathing. She surprises Susan with the dramatic arch of her back and the length of her moans. A woman's orgasm is a curve, not a moment. Susan is amazed at how much she's forgotten.
She doesn't want to forget any more. She wants the whole refresher course. Lots of hands-on experiments. Maybe even a quiz at the end.
She checks the clock radio by the bedside. It's a few minutes past midnight. "Do you have to be anywhere tomorrow?" she asks Elizabeth.
"Ella's staying at the Bentons' until tomorrow morning anyway. I'm on call from seven AM. That's all." She smiles and draws a slow line with her finger from Susan's chin, between her breasts, down to her navel. "Is there somewhere you need me to be?"
"Don't need," Susan says. "I've learned to enjoy being alone."
"Can I stay," Elizabeth says, "until you've taught me?"
"That could take all morning," Susan says.
"Good," says Elizabeth.
It is the first time in what feels like a million years since Susan has had sex, and a million more years than that since it's been a woman; she realizes that she's getting laid in the suburbs. That's the kind of thing she once decided she didn't do anymore. Now, Elizabeth is lowering her head between Susan's legs. And Susan thinks, it's not that these things change people. She dated men she couldn't possibly marry and kept apartments no sane person would live in, believing that if she gave them up for something good, she'd leave her soul behind with her. Mark got married, had kids, bought a house in Northbrook, stayed the same. Susan has always been the kind of woman who has more sex than the bride after a wedding. "Let yourself be her," she whispers. Elizabeth doesn't hear her. She's too busy getting Susan to come more than the bride.
Kerry and I are lost on Key Largo in a rental car the size of a small European principality. I thought the upgrade would be a good idea, but it turns out that the American definition of "luxury vehicle" is "beached whale." We have just failed in our second round of "this *has* to be the right road," and I am trying to steer Moby Buick back onto the main road. Kerry is in the passenger seat, cursing the air conditioner. "Doesn't 'luxury vehicle' imply 'working climate control system'?" she says.
"It certainly does in *my* country," I say. I am trapped in the right lane behind a twenty-year-old Chevrolet sedan. Its left rear turning light is covered in red gaffer's tape and a Cuban-flag sticker; its right rear turning light has been blinking since I began following the car and shows no signs of prompt cessation.
"*That's* what we should have done this weekend," Kerry says. "We should have gone to England."
"But I've never been to Florida before. Also, England is cold, and Theresa is much more persuasive than my father." Theresa is one of Kerry's bar friends. She's a senior vice president at Metra, and she's purported to own a beach cottage somewhere on this island. I'm seriously beginning to doubt that cottage's existence, kind as it was of Theresa to lend it to us for a long weekend.
"There," Kerry says. "Mangrove Way. That's what the directions say. We kept turning on *New* Mangrove Way." I make a screeching right turn that severely tests the torque capabilities of Moby Buick. This road is narrower and quieter than the main thoroughfare, and the pink-washed strip malls give way to tree-draped near-wilderness. "She said the road would narrow," Kerry says reduntantly.
"This is beautiful," I say. "I'm pulling over to take a picture."
"Don't you just want to *get* there already?" Kerry says.
"It'll just be a minute."
"It's all swamp," she says. "You'll ruin your shoes. Get back in the car."
"Come on, Kerry," I say. "Don't you think it would be fun? Covered in mud, with an audience of alligators..."
"No," she says.
I take my picture: sunshine diffused through mist and leaves. It's the kind of holiday photo that will bore my mother. She thinks there's no sense in exposing the film unless there's a person in the frame, or at least an unusually entertaining pet. After a few dozen evenings watching slide after slide of Mother grinning in front of famous European sights, I appreciate clear views. I like to keep memories of things that I've never seen before, and especially of things that won't be the same if I see them again. "Kerry took me to the Florida Keys when you were just a baby," I'll tell Ella someday. "This is what we got lost in."
It's my first time in Florida. I'm disappointed that it's taken me this long to get here. When I applied for my year of fellowship abroad (not realizing, of course, that one year would become the rest of my life), I wrote a very ambitious paragraph about my desire to travel to each of the fifty states. Florida is my seventh, and that only if I count the layover in Seattle on my way back from Hawaii. Kerry, who grew up moving from city to city to foreign country, doesn't understand why I can't possibly get back in the car.
"I want to go, Elizabeth," Kerry says. "I'm tired, and I want to unpack. We can-- we can go to the beach when we get there."
"If we get there," I say. I open one of the rear doors to toss my camera in the back seat and realize that there is someone else I'd like to toss back there. Not to keep her quiet, but to calm her down. She gets caught up in minutiae. I wanted to get away for the weekend partly to distract her from that. I can't tolerate this mood for what could be another hour of wandering the back streets of Key Largo. "Kerry," I say. "Come into the back seat." I shut the rear door behind me and take off my top.
"The house should be half a mile up the road," she says.
"I've lived in America for five years, and I've never made love in the back of a Buick," I say.
"Neither have I," she says, but she gets out of the car and climbs in the back. "A Ford, two Volvos, a Volkswagen bus, and a Hyundai, but never a Buick." She takes off my bra and slips her hand up my skirt. "The Hyundai was... pretty cramped."
"I don't want to know," I say. I lift her sunglasses from her nose and drop them in the front seat. She is wearing a black knit t-shirt and her only pair of jeans, but quickly and of her own accord, she isn't wearing them anymore. She kisses my breasts while I get rid of the comfortable cotton underwear that she wears when she travels. I hold her here for a moment, letting her kiss me, before I bend down to nip her shoulders and caress her ass.
She tugs at my skirt. "I'm not going to sit here naked in the back of a rental car unless you are, too," she says. I undress, and she lets me pull her back into my arms. I straddle her thigh but she draws me closer and rubs her clit against mine. The friction of soft flesh makes my skin tingle. She is close and wet but not there, and I can't stand it anymore. I enter her with two fingers; I plan to stop at three but she begs until I've got my fist inside her. She's digging her nails into my back and her teeth into my neck. The clean leather seat squeals. The sun reflects off her hair and glitters on the window.
I assume we're going to get back on the road when her breathing slows and I draw my hand carefully out of her, but before I have time to dry it, she pushes me down onto the seat and sets about having me just as hard. She goes too fast, but it is good pain. I raise my hips up into her and use the door handle to steady myself as she brings me into one long screaming orgasm that I am still not quite down from when she frees her hand. I watch, my eyes half-lidded, as she dresses in the hazy light. I notice that she leaves off her underwear. "Do you want to lie in the back?" she says.
"Just a minute," I say. "I'll put my clothes on and come up front."
"I was going to save that for when we got to the house," she says.
"We can do it again," I say.
She frowns as I sit up. "You've got the darkest hickey I've ever seen," she says. "And cat scratches on your back. I'm sorry."
She has nearly torn me in half, and she's worried about leaving marks on my neck. "I expect you to do much more damage in the future," I say.
"We've got all weekend," she says. "Let's see what kind of trouble we can get into."
Five minutes later, we find the house. Five minutes after that, we are baptizing the kitchen table. It's going to be a very short weekend.