Duel, Part 2
The area around the bar is lit more brightly than where she's sitting, and Kerry suddenly feels as if she's the audience sitting in the darkened seats beyond the bright lights of a stage, watching the pivotal scene in a taught drama: Abby's slow approach to Kim, their moment of silent confrontation, Kim's hand reaching out toward Abby then drawing back again, their tentative, awkward good-bye.
Abby exits, stage left, and Kerry watches Kim walk toward her now, savoring the details of her approach, her long, loose limbs, her easy grace and lovely smile. When she moves gradually from light to shadow, her blond hair seems to brighten and then become luminous, casting a silvery sheen like moonlight across her face.
"This is for you, ma'am." Kim sets Kerry's drink on the table with a flourish, and reclaims her chair.
"Thanks." Kerry smiles, but the set of her expression is dark and serious. She reaches across the table and touches Kim's shortened hair again.
"I just did it on a whim," Kim says with a self-conscious glance downward. "I'll grow it out if you don't like it."
Kerry shakes her head. "You look beautiful, sweetheart." She gestures toward the bar and the direction in which Abby just departed. "Did you two have a nice talk?"
Kim drains the last bit of fluid from her glass before answering, mostly residual lime juice and melted ice. "Yes," she says, setting the empty glass on the wooden table top with a hollow tonk. "She can be a hard person to connect with, but yes, we had a nice talk."
Kerry nods. "She's hard to work with sometimes, but she's great with the patients who need help the most."
Kim smiles. "I think you two have a lot in common."
Kerry shrugs and takes a sip of her Scotch. She parts her lips to breathe out the fumes, staring into her glass for a moment at the uneven reflection of the dim light off the golden liquid. "I'm glad it wasn't her," she says quietly.
Kim gives her a blank look.
"On the phone this morning. I'm glad it wasn't Abby."
Tommy. It had been weighing Kim down like a stone all day, but sometime during her long talk with Abby she'd forgotten. "Oh my God, Kerry...."
Kerry stops her with a raised hand. "Wait. Before you say anything..." she reaches down to the floor beside her bag and comes up with a small package wrapped loosely in green paper. She hands it to Kim.
Kim pulls the paper back to reveal five slender twigs lined with delicate pink and white blooms.
"Plum blossoms," Kerry says. "It's not like I feel I need to compete with anyone, but you mentioned flowers...."
"Kerry, they're beautiful."
Kerry watches Kim bring the blossoms close to her face, noticing the contrast of the rough darkness of the bark and the bright softness of the petals, and thinking how, in proximity to Kim's pale skin and shining eyes, they're both made hauntingly, achingly beautiful. She feels a quick tug at her heart, and decides that, no matter what happens, she'll hold this image like a snapshot in her mind forever.
Kim sets the sticks carefully back on their wrapping and glances at Kerry, trying to gauge her mood.
"You know, I stood in the store looking at them for a long time," Kerry says, "afraid that if I got them for you you'd think I was trying to make you feel guilty, but they were so extraordinary, I decided to get them anyway. I really wanted you to have them."
"Thank you, Kerry," Kim says. "I don't know what else to say."
"This isn't really the season for them. They're usually around in early spring," Kerry continues as if Kim hasn't spoken. "My husband and I were in Osaka once when the plum trees were blooming in March. We took a long walk in the park one morning." She stares past Kim's shoulder, her eyes unfocussed. "That color and fragrance and the morning light... It's one of my favorite memories of spring."
Kim treasures these sudden flashes of insight into Kerry's past, and doesn't want to break the mood. She just smiles. "It sounds lovely."
Kerry nods and takes another drink of her Scotch then circles a single finger tip around the rim of the glass, not meeting Kim's eyes. "I wish you had been there--it would be an even better memory if I had shared it with you."
"Your husband probably would have objected." Kerry doesn't react to her attempt to lighten the mood, so Kim reaches out and brushes back her hair where it's shifted down to obscure the side of her face. "Maybe we can go there together sometime."
Kerry captures Kim's hand and kisses her palm quickly and lightly before letting it go. "I'm attracted to other women too, you know," she says softly. "Maybe not as often as you are, but still, I am."
Kim leans across the table toward her. "Kerry...."
Kerry cuts her off with a raised hand again. "I know you know that--intellectually you understand it, but I think you're just not really used to the idea yet." She takes another quick sip of Scotch. "And if I were..." she pauses, searching for a word. "If I were propositioned as often as you must be--if I had that much temptation in my life, I think it would be difficult to always say no. I can understand that."
Kim stares at her, momentarily struck dumb with surprise. She had expected Kerry to be angry, had expected to be made to feel defensive and to have to insist that she'd done nothing wrong. But now she realizes that Kerry is trying to make excuses for her.
"Kerry, please, let me explain." Kerry gives her a sharp look and watches her cast about for the right thing to say. "Nothing happened," Kim says finally, throwing up her hands in frustration, knowing even as the words leave her mouth how hollow they sound, how weak.
"Oh, I see. So you were just having a sleep-over with a special friend?"
Kerry shakes her head and sighs. "You know, you shouldn't feel you need to explain yourself to me. I don't want to make you feel that way. We never really talked about it anyway. We never said we would see each other exclusively. We haven't talked about what we want from each other at all. That's my fault. I'm the reticent one in this relationship--I know that. I'm the one who's been sending mixed signals. I'm the one who just took off for 5 days...."
"Kerry, stop," Kim says, realizing that she could probably go on like this forever. "There's no blame to be assigned here. Really, nothing happened. It was only Tommy."
Kerry scans her memory for the name. "Your ex-girlfriend Tommy who you used to live with? The musician?"
Kerry presses her hands against her forehead, hiding her eyes, clearly not feeling comforted or reassured. "You know, Kim, I used to think that if I could feel your arms around me just one more time--if I could feel that you cared about me and somehow be sure that it was real, I would feel so much better. It would be a small kernel of truth I could carry with me for the rest of my life like a treasure. And it would be enough. But now I can't help but think that if you came back into my life just to turn around and leave again, it would have been better if you had never come back at all."
She hears Kim's small exhalation of pain.
"I'm sorry," she says quietly. "I'm not saying that to hurt you, but it's how I feel." She puts her glass to her lips, tips her head and throws back the rest of the Scotch in a single gulp, gagging slightly as is goes down hard. "The first time we were together, everything felt so solid, so real . And then it just crumbled." Her voice is ragged, Kim can't tell if from the alcohol or strong emotions. "I'm afraid if I let myself be angry with you now, it will happen again."
"Kerry, nothing is crumbling...."
Kerry gives her a sharp look. "How the hell do you know 'nothing is crumbling'? I'm the one who's angry."
"I thought you weren't angry."
"Give me a break, Kim. I caught you in bed with another woman."
Kim leans across the table and catches Kerry's face between her hands. "She's an old friend and she's back in town for awhile. She showed up on my doorstep last night and she needed a place to stay. I told her she could stay for one night. Now she's gone. We slept in the same bed. We didn't have sex. That's it. That's the whole story."
"She's not just an 'old friend.' It's not that simple."
For a second, Kim remembers the warm, delicious friction of bare skin on skin. She releases her grip on Kerry's face. "Ok," she concedes. "That's true."
"From now on, can she please sleep on the couch?"
Kerry breaths a defeated sigh. "Ok."
"Really? It's ok?"
Kerry grabs her crutch and her bag and doesn't answer. "Let's get the hell out of here. I don't mean to criticize your skills as a provider, but I need more for dinner than peanut butter and jelly and a Scotch." She leans on her crutch and pulls herself up.
Kim stands too. "I guess that does sound sort of like the menu on skid row. Where to?"
"Come back to my house and I'll make us something healthy?"
"Sure." Kim tries to sound nonchalant, but this is the first time she's been invited to Kerry's house since their reunion. Their conversation has left her anxious-she knows that the issues that have been addressed have not yet been resolved. She's made a list of them in the back of her mind to be addressed again later. But she can't help but feel a quick jolt of excitement too.
Kerry seems to be in a hurry to leave, so Kim steps to the side to let her pass, but then Kerry makes an unexpected turn to face her. For a second, they're looking into each other's eyes, then Kerry puts her left hand on Kim's waist, slides it around to her lower back, and Kim is surprised to find herself in a sudden, light, one-armed embrace. She can feel the tension in the other woman's back as she rests her hands on her shoulder blades, then leans in and touches her forehead to Kerry's.
They stand like that, motionless, for a few seconds, then Kerry draws in a long, ragged breath before she speaks.
"God, Kim, I love you so much."
It's the first time Kim has ever heard her say it out loud, and it comes in a harsh gasp, as if forced out of her by a painful blow. She puts her hand lightly on the back of Kerry's neck to prevent her from pulling away. "I love you too, Kerry," she says, her own voice breathy with surprise and emotion.
Kerry just nods against her. When Kim takes her hand away, she turns her back and starts for the door.
They ride back to Kerry's place in a companionable silence, Kim at the wheel, holding hands across the front seat and letting the tension slip away. They talk only enough to determine that Kerry is too tired to cook. Kim makes a quick stop for Thai take-out without asking. Kerry silently acquiesces.
Now they're sitting across from each other at Kerry's dining room table, flanked by a spray of plum blossoms in a crystal vase, the air around them infused with the spicy, aromatic scents of coconut milk, lemon grass and basil. Kim pushes back her plate with a smile and a sigh.
Kerry gestures to the remnants of food in a container. "You're skin and bones, Kim. Have some more curry."
Kim pats her stomach. "Couldn't eat another bite."
"Another glass of wine?"
"That I won't say no to."
"I'll go get the bottle. You take the glasses over to the couch."
"Will do." Kim stands, laces the long fingers of one hand through the stems of both wine glasses, and moves across the pleasant dimness of the living room toward the couch. Since she's arrived at Kerry's place, she's tried to be as surreptitious as possible about her methodical scanning of the furnishings and dcor for signs of change, for indications of what alterations Sandy's presence might have brought to the place. But it's almost impossible for her to say. In the past, she and Kerry spent almost no time here together at all, but Kerry and Sandy lived here. She can feel that it's still their space. When Kerry reenters the room, Kim sets the wine glasses on the glass-topped coffee table and arranges herself in a corner of the sand-colored couch.
Kerry sits down beside her, refills both their glasses, and hands one to Kim.
"Kerry, are you really ok about... the phone this morning, Tommy..."
Kerry's head is tilted down as she swirls the red wine in her glass, her eyes hidden behind her bangs.
Kim reaches out, puts a hand on Kerry's knee and squeezes. "I'm not sure if you've noticed yet, Kerry, but I want you."
Kerry looks up and surprises her with a throaty giggle. "Yeah, I've noticed." She takes a sip of wine, then plucks the wine glass from Kim's hand and sets both glasses on the coffee table. With her hands free now, she scoots through the distance between them, puts her arm around Kim's waist, and lays her head on her shoulder. Kim freezes.
"Breathe, Kim." Kerry pokes her in the ribs.
Kim slowly exhales, wraps her long arms around Kerry, kisses the top of her head, and waits for her to speak again.
"I was scared. I thought you were leaving me."
"Oh sweetie, I'm sorry."
"I already know how terrible it feels, Kim. I don't want to go through it again."
"Kerry, I'm not leaving you."
Kerry breaths a long sigh and strokes the soft, pale skin on the inside of Kim's forearm. "Ok," she says. "I'm sorry I overreacted."
Kim tightens her grip around Kerry's shoulder and kisses her forehead tenderly.
"Exactly how many of your ex-lovers are you friends with, anyway?"
Kerry's voice is casual, but there's a sharpness there too that Kim doesn't miss. "'Exactly' is a very dangerous word," she responds, being careful to keep her own voice soft and even, "but I guess it's fair to say more than a few. That means I'm a good person, right?"
Kerry's only response is a skeptical snort. "You know what I've been thinking all day?"
"How much worse I would have felt about that call this morning if we'd already slept together."
This time Kim's voice betrays her waning patience. "I don't know what else to say, Kerry. I didn't mean..."
"For me to know about it?"
Kim shakes her head. "No, for it to hurt you."
Kerry nods. "I know." She can't help but think of Lori, even five years later. She sinks into Kim's embrace for a moment more, then pushes away and disentangles herself from the other woman's arms. Kim watches her as she stands up and moves across the room to an old wooden desk, pulls open a drawer, takes something out and holds it against her chest with one hand as she re-crosses the room. She hands it to Kim. A framed photo.
Kim looks at the picture of Kerry sitting on a park bench beside a beautiful woman, both of them engulfed in a whirlwind of colorful, blowing leaves. Kerry is smiling widely, her eyes half closed, and the other woman, whose long, curly hair is disheveled and adorned with a few dry leaves, is protecting her face with a raised hand, leaning forward and laughing.
"What a beautiful picture. You both look so happy."
As Kerry gazes at the picture, she reaches out and touches the frame, caressing the wood. "Sometimes we were. Not always. It was complicated."
"Relationships usually are."
"I suppose that's true." Kerry takes the picture out of Kim's hands and sets it on the coffee table facing them, retrieves her wine glass and takes a long sip.
"I saw you two together once." Kim says it casually.
"Yeah. It was so completely out of context that I had myself half convinced it wasn't really you. But it was."
"A Blackhawks game."
Kerry smiles. "I got her season tickets for her birthday one year. She loved hockey." She stares into the space for a few seconds, eyes unfocussed, then focuses in on Kim again. "Why didn't you say hello?"
"I was about to, but Christy drug me away."
Kerry shakes her head. "Good old Christy."
"She was just trying to protect me."
Kerry sighs and runs her hands through her hair. "Well, anyway, it's probably best that you two never met. I don't think you would have liked each other."
"Well, the circumstances would have made it pretty awkward..."
"Even under the best of circumstances."
"It's hard to imagine not liking someone who loved you. Who you loved."
Kerry looks doubtful. "You two are pretty different."
Kim sets the photo and frame on the coffee table, upright and facing them, retrieves her own glass, takes a long sip, and swirls the amber liquid pensively. "What did you and she have in common?" she finally asks. "Other than your deep and abiding love of hockey."
"Not much. Maybe you've heard that."
"Yeah..." Kim nods.
"Where did you hear it?"
Kerry is suddenly staring at her intently, and Kim finds herself speechless. "Uhhhh..."
"What else did she say about us?"
"Kim, what else did Abby tell you about me and Sandy?"
"That's about it...."
Kerry gives her a long, frowning stare of skepticism and disapproval. "If you have any questions about us, you can ask me. You can ask me right now if you want. I want you to hear about her from me."
"Ok, Kerry. I'm sorry."
"So what do you want to know?"
Kim shrugs helplessly. "Whatever you want to tell me."
Kerry sighs, and they sip their way through a few minutes of silence.
"The first time we met, she saved my life," Kerry finally says softly. "That's the kind of person she was."
"Wow. That's hard to beat."
Kerry touches Kim's hand. "It's not a contest, Kim."
"I know that."
Kim takes Kerry's mostly empty wine glass and places it and her own on the coffee table again. She opens her arms in invitation. Kerry slides through the distance between them and accepts the embrace.
"I've been in New York for the last few days. I'm sorry I wasn't honest about it."
"What's in New York?"
"Sandy's niece. She just graduated from college. I went to the ceremony with her family. She wants to be a doctor." She says this with a touch of pride.
"Just like Aunt Kerry?"
Kerry shrugs. "Something like that. They're good people, her family. When they realized how much I meant to Sandy, they were very accepting and supportive. You know I've never been a part of a big family before. It's nice, being included."
"Sounds like they're pretty important to you."
"I guess they are. I like to spend time with the kids, and Sandy's sister is a lot like her--you know how siblings can be, the same mannerisms, the same voice. It's almost eerie, now that Sandy is gone."
"Do they know about us?"
"This isn't simple for you, is it?"
Silence decends again. Kim running a caressing palm up and down the length of Kerry's back.
"She died a hero, you know," Kerry says finally. "The press never tried to paint me as the grieving widow because of the whole lesbian thing, but lots of people see me that way. Most of the people who new us as a couple."
"Is it how you see yourself?"
Kim presses a light kiss to Kerry's forehead and waits for her to say more.
"She was funny. It's good to have someone around who can make you laugh."
Kim nods. "That's true."
"She was shorter than me."
"Wow," Kim says in mock surprise.
Kerry gives her a little shove. "Some people are, you know."
"A few." Kim ruffles a playful hand through Kerry's hair, and Kerry ducks away. "Sometimes it comes in handy," she says, and runs a flat palm up and down Kim's long, lean thigh as if to take a physical measure of their differences. Kim sets her own hand on top of Kerry's and their fingers lace.
"We talked about her dying," Kerry continues, "the possibility of it. But she was so strong she seemed indestructible. It was a shock when it happened."
"Of course it was."
"We tried to have a baby but we lost it."
"Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry."
"She told you about it, didn't she? Abby."
Kim carefully considers her words before she speaks. "She thought I already knew, Kerry. She wouldn't have told me otherwise. And I wouldn't have wanted her to."
"Would you still want to be with me if I had a 3 year old child to raise?"
Kerry backs away far enough to look up into Kim's eyes, and feels reassured by the sincerity she sees there, the openness of the emotions. "I told her all about you."
Kim raises a single eyebrow.
"I would have felt dishonest if I hadn't. She knew I still loved you," Kerry says softly. She lays her head back against Kim's shoulder and they tighten their grip on each other.
"Thank you for staying away. If I had known you were still here and still cared about me, it would have been hard. Things could have gotten very complicated. But if I knew you were still here and thought you didn't care about me, I would have felt even worse."
"...just because I'm happy to be with you again doesn't mean I'm not sorry for all you've lost. You know that, right?"
Kerry doesn't answer.
"Sweetie, I was really happy for you--that you and Sandy had found each other. I really was."
"It's strange to hear you say her name."
"Is it ok?"
"Yes, but strange. It makes me feel..."
"I think that's normal. But I also think she would have wanted you to be happy."
"Do you think it's wrong to mourn the loss of one lover in the arms of another?"
"I think it's what most people do."
"How do you feel about that?"
"I think if you're only in my arms to forget someone else then we should stop right now. But if it's more than that, it's ok. Complicated, but ok."
"Right," Kerry says, and nods once, sharply, as if, together, they've come to some sort of important decision. She tucks her legs beneath her and presses herself further into Kim's embrace.
They sit like that for a few minutes, enjoying their shared embrace, the ways in which it's both new and familiar. Kim notices a slight change in Kerry's breathing, and when she touches her finger-tips to Kerry's cheek, she draws them away damp with tears. She kisses Kerry's forehead gently and runs a soothing hand up and down her back again. "Kerry," she croons, "Kerry, I wish I could take all the hurt away. Sweetie, talk to me. Tell me what you're thinking."
Kerry takes a long, unsteady breath. "I missed you so much. I thought I'd never see you again."
"Shhhhh. I'm here." Kerry nods against Kim's chest and uses a shirt-sleeve to wipe away her tears.
"Thanks for being so patient with me."
Kim knows they're not just talking about the past now, or the present, they're talking about everything. Years of love and loss and joy and heartbreak and yearning. And she knows she hasn't been patient with her. Not really. She brushes her lips across Kerry's hair. "I love you," she whispers, and hears the answer in Kerry's breathing, a low, quiet sob.
They sit like that for a long time, holding each other, and Kerry's breaths become slow and deep. Kim thinks she might have fallen asleep, and she's considering waking her up and putting her to bed when she feels Kerry's hand move in her lap, then a flat palm sliding slowly up from her waist across her belly to cup a soft breast. Kerry pauses there for a moment, then begins to move her palm in a slow, gentle circle.
"Oh, my," Kim breathes softly, tightening her hands across Kerry's back.
Kerry leans down and nuzzles the other breast with her mouth through the thin silver fabric of Kim's blouse while her fingers fumble with the buttons. The fabric falls away as she works the buttons free. She slides Kim's bra strap down her shoulder and runs a finger beneath the edge of the silky, lacey fabric of the bra, then she pushes it down to reveal a bare breast. She blows softly across the smooth, pale skin.
"Kerry..." Kim breaths, closing her eyes and arching reflexively toward Kerry's mouth and sensual touch.
Kerry lets her cool fingertips play across Kim's skin, then leans in and works her tongue back and forth across a hardened nipple before taking it completely into her mouth, nipping and sucking.
"Kerry, Kerry," Kim says with increasing urgency in her voice. "Kerry, wait..." She puts a hand on either side of Kerry's face and pulls her away, feeling both extremely aroused and completely taken off guard.
Kerry looks up at her. "What is it?"
When Kim sees the brightness in Kerry's eyes, the complexity of feelings there, the eagerness and passion, impatience and concern, she feels a new surge of tenderness and desire. "Kiss me first, damn it," she says with quiet humor and intensity.
"Oh," Kerry says. "Ok."
She puts her hands on Kim's shoulders and pulls herself up, then swings a leg across Kim's body to straddle her. Kim puts a steadying hand on her lover's hips, feeling the familiar awkwardness of her movements.
Kerry rests her weight on Kim's lap, and they stare at each other, eye to eye. Kerry runs a trembling finger down the other woman's warm, flushed cheek. "This is real," she says, a simple statement, as if, until this moment, she's doubted her own grasp on reality. Kim nods.
Kerry leans in, and their lips touch and part and they're breathing into each other, each with her hands on the other's face, in the other's hair, touching and guiding and feeling.
Hours later, still surrounded by the warmth of their love-making, Kim drifts pleasantly in and out of sleep until she feels Kerry's body trembling against her own. She fits her long form to the shape of her lover's sleeping body, slides an arm around her waist, and whispers in her ear.
"Kerry.... good dream or bad dream?"
Kim kisses her shoulder. "You were dreaming, sweetheart. Good dream or bad dream?"
Kerry takes Kim's hand and slides it from her waist upwards toward her breasts.
Kim smiles. "Oh, good dream."
Kim's hand caresses Kerry's breast, the softness of the skin and flesh. Her fingers flicker across the hardness of the nipple. Kerry whimpers.
She grasps Kim's hand again and slides it down across her belly.
"Hey, not so fast."
"I'm going to come. I want you inside me."
Kerry's voice is a low whisper, rough and urgent, and Kim feels a rush of warmth in her own body when she realizes how aroused she is. As she slides her fingers through soft hair and into Kerry's wetness, Kerry voices a single, soft cry and Kim immediately feels the spasm of muscles. Kerry's breaths come in quick gasps, Kim holding her tight until the waves have passed.
"My love, my love," Kim whispers as she feels the last tremors wash through Kerry's body and she finally stills.
"Mi carina..." Kerry answers, as she drifts back into sleep.