On the off chance anyone is still reading this thing, I profusely apologize for the delay in the update. That is just not like me and I will endeavor to get the next section up at a much quicker rate. The only excuse I have is that Ye Ol’ Real Life decided to become especially…complicated since Part One was posted. But hopefully things will be on the calmer side so the time between updates is considerably shorter.
I also really want to take this opportunity to thank the fine and glorious Mary D for housing my two stories as well as housing the works of so many extraordinary writers. Although it has been said many a time before, Mary D rocks! And I sincerely appreciate all her hard work for generally making the Xenaverse a cooler place in which to hang.
Resa didn’t move. For several minutes she sat staring over the scattering of homes that dominated the Hollywood hillside, aware only of the pounding tempo of her heart and the potential bleakness that sat perched on the corner of her emotions.
She closed her eyes and let out a little sigh that was instantly lost to the wind.
A part of her wanted to be angry at Jennifer’s reaction. But there was another more judicious part that recognized its degree of validity. Jennifer was jealous and no attempt had been made on her part to disguise that fact (not that she even could, seeing as the ability to conceal her emotions was not her strong suit) which, frankly, Resa considered to be a good thing. At least in the long run divining the other woman’s thoughts wouldn’t prove too difficult… provided, of course, there was a long run.
She sighed again, heavier now, and listened to the rattling echo as the younger woman moved about within the house.
It was a sticky situation, no two ways about it. But if truth were to be had from her end, she would endeavor that it always be the unfettered kind and the consequences would have to be dealt with accordingly.
Of course, she thought wryly, it’s the ‘dealing’ part that typically sucks.
Normally she wouldn’t have even bothered, never having been one to give a damn about the opinions of others. But disregard wasn’t an option where Jennifer was concerned. To not deal with the situation would be stupid and she was far too emotionally invested at this point in her life to risk losing someone this important over pride.
In a single, fluid motion she stood and entered the house, instantly feeling the cool of the shadows upon her skin, having been left warm and aglow from their brunch under the sun. Once inside, she detected the soft, faintly floral scent (lavender again?) that permeated the whole of the house, inevitably reminding her of the woman in question.
Her eyes did not deviate from her direction, but her step was more hesitant than she would have liked, made so by the tumult of emotion and the volatility of her situation.
She found Jennifer, not surprisingly, in the kitchen, her back to Resa. A moment passed during which Resa absorbed the loveliness of the other woman’s stance, the breadth of her shoulders (surprising in one as small as she), the curve of her waist, like the gentle undulation of an hourglass, and the clenched hands that she held rigid by her side. She noted the way the younger woman’s newly short (well, to her thinking it was new) hair brushed her collar and served to emphasize its thickness, fullness, and the honey highlights that danced almost reddish in the sun’s gleam.
Jennifer sighed and, without bothering to turn around, said, "I’m sorry" in a voice that was low and restrained and carried the potential to become very sad. "I have no right to be jealous. I mean, we were apart and…and you didn’t know we’d meet up again." Jennifer raised her hand to rub the tension from her forehead. "I’m being an idiot."
"You’re being human," Resa replied, struggling to quell her growing impatience for the other woman to face her.
"That doesn’t make it right." She looked down at her fingernails, giving no indication she intended to turn.
With a sigh, Resa walked further into the kitchen until she stood directly in front of Jennifer, her eyes boring down on the younger woman until Jennifer finally raised her head to meet her gaze. Resa studied her expression, noting the tension around the lines of her mouth and the way in which the corner of her lower lip was caught up between her front teeth. It was a pensive sign Resa recognized quite well.
Jennifer sighed yet again, glancing away as she raked a hand through her short hair, and clearly struggled to find the right words. "It’s just…when you tell me that you spent six months in the company of a beautiful woman who helped save your life and doted on you at every turn, it-- it bothers me."
Resa nodded. "I understand."
Wide eyes grew uncharacteristically hooded and several seconds passed before she asked in a quiet voice, "Should it bother me?"
They studied each other for a moment, and then Resa reached out her left hand, pleased when Jennifer took it without hesitation. Their fingers twined, Resa led her into the adjoining living room and guided her to the plush, rust-colored sofa. Without needing to be told, Jennifer sat down but Resa remained standing, her body too keyed up to feign relaxation.
Seconds felt like hours, filled with hesitation and questions and Resa hadn’t a clue how to begin or what to say. She instinctively knew this moment was profoundly important to the future direction of their relationship, so much so that it left her somewhat helpless. But beneath it all she was a strong woman and she had faced situations more treacherous than the one before her now.
She drew in a deep, bolstering breath. "Jennifer…" she began. "I think I need to explain about Lillian."
Jennifer shook her head. "No, you don’t--"
"Yes." Her tone was firm. "I do."
Resa likes working at the shelter. Such a thought never entered her mind when Lillian first broached the subject to her as her time in the hospital approached its end, but now, after having spent the past several months engaged in helping others, she finds a certain satisfaction in the work.
It is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but Lillian never said it would be. The doctor has been up front from the beginning, explaining the less than glamorous tasks involved, the sweeping and feeding and delousing of bedding and breaking up fights and making sure couples do not copulate on the premises in full view of any who care to look. But it has been a good experience for her and a source of comfort. Whenever she feels the blues of her situation start to take hold, she has only to look around to see a whole host of others who are in a far worse situation than she to instantly feel humbled. Even, on some occasions, fortunate.
By all rights she knows she can stay here for years to come, can make this place her life. But lately the pangs of restlessness have begun to prickle the edges of her soul and she has found herself subconsciously searching…for what exactly she does not know.
Being disconnected from her former life has proven to be more difficult than she originally envisioned. It has taken all her willpower to resist venturing over to Santa Monica, and to one apartment in particular. She also finds that she misses the Padre very much and wants to find some way to contact him, but she knows that, too, is out of the question.
Lillian has sensed her agitation, but she says nothing. At times Resa feels the other woman’s eyes upon her and the questions that remain unasked and a part of her considers sharing her thoughts with the good doctor, yet she does not. They are friends and their friendship is something to be treasured but she finds herself holding back, not giving in completely, as Lillian unquestionably would like.
Shelter From the Storm is housed in a former elementary school and evokes a quasi-campus atmosphere, albeit on a small scale. The main office is located in a far corner of the grounds. Inside is a pine desk that sits in the center of a room so cramped it barely allows enough space for the door to open and it is here that Resa has spent a good portion of the afternoon.
Resa gazes out the window and lets her eyes wander. Before her she sees a well-maintained patch of grass that doubles as the front lawn and a couple of tall elm trees under which two of the more regular homeless patrons lie in sleepy repose. The day is hot, even by September standards, and she feels several beads of sweat trickle down her neck to stain the denim collar of her work shirt.
There is a knock at the door behind her and she calls out for the person on the other side to come in. A dark head pokes through the crack in the doorway. Resa recognizes DeRon, a young man successfully recovering from cocaine addiction and a savant with all things mechanical.
"Hey," she says and receives a smile in return. "What’s up?"
DeRon fully enters. "I’m done lookin’ at the air conditioner."
"And we need a whole buncha stuff before it’s gonna get fixed." He holds out a sheet of paper to her, which she takes to peruse the figures. They are not good.
She rubs the back of her neck before murmuring, "This’ll be cheap."
They are running low on funds for the month, per usual, and having to purchase major parts comes as particularly unwelcome news. But there is nothing she can do about it. This time of year the temperature can run well into the 100’s and the heat inevitably exacerbates the already tight living conditions, producing an increase in the number of conflicts between the inhabitants. No question, she needs to have it repaired but though Lillian has given her many managerial privileges in the shelter, Resa is still hesitant about okaying such a hefty check without first consulting the doctor.
She glances up to see that the clock on the wall reads 4:37PM. At that moment Lillian is in her personal quarters of the shelter, having been kept up by a knife fight the night before and having only a few hour earlier found the precious time to catch up on the much-needed missing sleep. Resa realizes that she needs to get DeRon working to fix this problem as fast as possible and decides to chance that Lillian is awake by now, if not necessarily up.
"Give me a few minutes. I’ll come find you," she tells DeRon then heads outside.
Resa feels the warmth of the sun and squints up at the azure sky, noting how the puffy remnants of several jet airstreams create a criss-cross pattern like some sort of divine hieroglyphic, the meaning of which she will never know. A breeze from a passing freight truck brings a brief respite from the temperature but that is soon gone, leaving in its place only the sweltering heat.
Resa’s eyes turn towards the flat roofed building that is the doctor’s quarters and she makes her way in that direction. It never ceases to amaze her that one as accomplished and talented as Lillian Chen chooses to live amid squalor and yet, much to her credit, she does. It is part of her commitment to the people for whom she works with near tireless dedication, which Resa deeply respects, much as she does the woman herself.
She presses the buzzer to the left of the door and waits a few moments before Lillian’s somewhat garbled voice calls back through the intercom,
"It’s me. I need to get your okay on a few things if you have a sec."
She hears the electronic hum of the lock being released and opens the door.
The interior of Lillian’s apartment is dim, brought about by the drawn, heavy curtains and low ceilings that hearken back to the early 70’s design. The ambiance of the living room is pure minimalist, in keeping with Lillian’s personal sense of style as well as her sincere lack of time available to give to such superfluous matters.
The door clicks shut behind Resa and she crosses further into the familiar room without hesitation, having spent many a night here talking over plans for the shelter’s future and other matters with the woman whom Resa considers to be a friend. Still, a distinct distance exists between them that Resa cannot bring herself to bridge. The fault lies entirely with her, stemming from the fears and the inadequacies that continue to bedevil her and proves to be the sole source of strain in their relationship. She cannot allow herself to grow too close to anyone. She knows that Lillian is intrigued by her, is interested in getting to know more about her and her past but this is not something Resa can allow to occur. Those close to her suffer and she has caused enough suffering already.
She glances around the apartment when the doctor does not immediately appear.
There is a brief pause and then a voice from the back of the apartment calls out, "In the back."
Resa does not think twice about heading down the narrow hallway in the direction of her friend’s bedroom.
"Sorry to bug you," she says as she walks forward. "But the air conditioner’s acting up again and I need to get your approval on some repair work or else tonight’s gonna get very--"
She turns the corner into Lillian’s bedroom and stops dead in her tracks.
"Hot," she finishes weakly even as her mind struggles to grapple with the scene before her eyes.
Not ten feet in front of her stands a very fresh from the shower Lillian Chen, covered only, and just barely, by a white, terrycloth towel that she holds loosely in front of her still dripping body. It is a sight so totally unexpected it is almost too surreal for her to comprehend.
For a long moment neither woman moves or speaks and the sudden sexual tension that passes between them is nearly palpable.
In a flash of recognition Resa realizes that this has been building for some time now, she just chose to ignore it, chose to build the walls around herself ever higher as she channeled her full energies into her work. But Lillian has called her bluff and Resa is left uncertain as to what she should do next. Her mind tells her one thing, but her loneliness pulls her in a completely different direction.
She begins to tremble with confusion.
Then Lillian slowly allows the towel to drop to the floor to reveal the unadulterated beauty of her body in all its splendor and Resa finds it difficult to breathe. Her heart thunders in her chest and she feels flooded with heat as her eyes travel the length of the other woman’s body in open admiration and an undisguised attraction.
She is magnificent. Truly. Her body is lean and taut and still glowing from the shower. Resa swallows hard and raises her eyes to meet Lillian’s. In their dark depths she finds a calmness and serenity that is wonderfully appealing and she starts to sway, just a little bit, in the other woman’s direction.
The invitation is clear. And Resa, who has not been with anyone in an extraordinarily long time, is hardly immune to the temptation.
Lillian advances towards her and Resa does not move. She merely watches and waits and tries to keep her breathing from getting out of hand.
The smaller woman stops before her, tilting her head to peer up from beneath thick lashes, as if to gauge Resa’s emotions. Then slowly she rises to her tiptoes, placing fingertips against Resa’s shoulders for balance, and leans up in order to lay a light kiss upon soft lips. Resa does not resist and after a moment Lillian presses closer for another, longer exchange that Resa allows to deepen.
Several moments pass during which Resa is incapable of coherent thought as her mind reels from the implication. She feels a war raging deep within herself as the unexpected surge of sexual desire threatens to overwhelm her. Then her glance flickers briefly to the bed that lays just behind Lillian and she realizes with total clarity that is where they are headed. They are going to have sex. But a part of her instinctively knows that is all it would be. Just sex. Nothing more. And she cannot help but feel that this is wrong. Wrong for her and wrong for Lillian as well.
Such a base reaction is not what Lillian wants or deserves. This woman has been her friend for many months, has saved her life, has worked hard to facilitate her recovery and has even helped her find employment. She deserves to be with someone who can return her affection with equality and without restraint and that is not something Resa Gustavez can do. She does not love Lillian Chen, not in this way, not as the center of her being, the focus of her heart…
…not in the way that she loves Jennifer Logan.
With a trace of sadness Resa pulls back. It takes Lillian a couple seconds to comprehend the cessation of the intimacy and she looks up in confusion.
Resa struggles for a moment to find the right words, then simply declares, "I can’t," before turning to walk out of the room.
* * * *
She hears the door behind her open and knows without needing to look that Lillian has entered the main office. The silence between them is as awkward and heavy as both women knew it would be, with an unmerciful tension filling the air.
Resa leans against the side of the desk having stared out the window, lost in thought, for nearly half an hour. Finally she sighs and clenches her hands.
"I can’t stay here now," she says.
There is a slight pause before Lillian starts to murmur, "I apologize--"
"No," Resa speaks quickly, turning to face the smaller woman. "Don’t." She subconsciously notes that Lillian is now fully dressed. Her hair is mostly dry but the ends are still damp and they serve as a tacit reminder of what almost transpired. She rubs the back of her neck, angry with herself for allowing things to get this far. "I’m not mad at you," she says evenly. "We were both there, both responsible, me as much as you. But, it wouldn’t be right for me to remain." She shrugs her shoulders. "I’d be tempted."
"And you don’t want that."
Resa shakes her head, her voice firm. "No."
"I see," she says softly, then moves to stand beside the window and turns to face Resa, regarding her with some consideration. "Is this about Jennifer?"
Resa’s eyes widened in surprise. "How-- ?"
"In the hospital, you would sometimes cry out her name when you were sleeping."
Resa remembers the series of nightmares that plagued her for several weeks after the fire, many of them including Jennifer and she recognizes it is entirely possible, no, likely, that she cried out for the girl in her sleep. It is a somewhat embarrassing revelation.
Lillian dips her head, a lock of hair falling across her face. "I wondered who she was at the time and what she meant to you." Dark brown eyes meet hers. "I think I know now."
But did she? Could she? Resa stands away from the desk, taking a couple steps forward until she is on the other side of the window from Lillian. Staring out at nothing in particular while her mind’s eye conjures up images of her past, of seeing Jennifer for the first time, admiring her courage, her strength and her beauty. She thinks of how astonishing it was for the two of them to have ever been allowed to meet in the first place, let alone to fall in love.
"I see her all the time," she says in an almost dreamlike voice. "In my mind, in my heart... I think about her every night, before I go to sleep…when I sleep." She rubs her palm over tired eyes as a wave of fatigue threatens to consume her. "Sometimes it hurts so much, I almost want to forget, but then—"
"You hate yourself for even thinking like that." Resa meets the doctor’s reflective gaze. "I understand."
There is something about the way in which she says this that catches Resa’s attention and she frowns. "Do you?"
An inscrutable emotion crosses over the other woman’s face and for a moment she seems disinclined to answer. Then she draws in a deep, steadying breath before whispering, "Yes." The single word is laden with meaning but Resa, while curious, will not pry. She does not have to.
The other woman gives a wry smile. "You seem surprised," Lillian murmurs. "Is it so remarkable to think that I’ve actually been in love?"
Resa shakes her head. "No. Not at all."
"Sometimes I think it is." She is quiet again, longer this time, and Resa senses in her a profound sadness, something unexpected for the typically staid, poised doctor. "We met in Ethiopia," she continues, her voice soft and faraway. "I had volunteered for Doctors Without Borders and the first time we encountered each other, it was instant loathing." A slight smile. "His name was Brian Gilleran and he was a gruff, jaded Texan who couldn’t utter a sentence without cursing, or ‘cussing,’ as he liked to put it. I found him appalling. He found me naïve. We worked together for four months and, naturally, it brought us closer. By the time my stay in Africa was completed, I couldn’t imagine a life without him. Oh, I hated the living conditions there, the squalor and impoverishment and despair. But Brian loved it. Going from crisis to crisis, dodging bullets from warring factions, providing aid in places that lacked clean water was his way of life, and I understood that. I knew if I wanted to be with him, and I very much did, that I would have to make it my way of life, too. So I agreed to make the necessary arrangements to stay, to be with him, beside him." Her voice deepens with recollection and sorrow. "I had thought we would be apart only for a couple months, while I got some things in order back here in the States…but…"
"Something happened," Resa surmises after a moment.
"Yes," she affirms, nodding, her eyes glistening. "Brian stepped on a landmine in Kenya. He was killed. Instantly, or so I was told. God, I hope that was true." She swallows hard. "After that, I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t set foot in Africa again, knowing he wouldn’t be there. So I remained in Los Angeles, working to fill my life so I wouldn’t notice how much I missed him."
Resa watches Lillian for several seconds and wishes she could find a way to alleviate the other woman’s obvious pain but as she is incapable of doing so in her own life, she is left sorely wanting for ideas. Were Jennifer here she would undoubtedly know what to do, likely taking Lillian into her comforting embrace and demonstrating for her in no uncertain terms the level of her compassion. But, in light of recent events, Resa does not think such an action to be the wisest one for her and instead offers a sincere, "I’m sorry."
"So was I, for a very long time. But that’s not what he would have wanted, not how he should be remembered, not with sorrow. So, I decided to try to do something positive with my loss. This shelter is one result. It was a response to an issue we used to talk about, the problems here at home that tended to get ignored. Poverty. Hunger. Homelessness. All these things that exist here on American soil but are seldom properly addressed. I even named this place after his favorite Bob Dylan song."
"How long ago was this?"
"It feels like a lifetime."
Resa sits for a long while without speaking, contemplating what her friend has told her of her life and the pain she must have endured. Then, with some care she asks, "And you…how long after what happened were you able to…be with someone else?"
Dark eyes meet hers squarely. "I haven’t."
Resa is taken aback by the frank confession and the underlying insinuation that lies within and utters a rather uncharacteristically helpless, "Oh…"
Lillian comes close to laughing at the reaction, her smile reaching up to the corners of her soulful eyes. "Don’t worry, Resa," she assures in amusement. "I’m not in love with you. I think highly of you, respect you. And I’m attracted to you, which is something I haven’t felt in a very long time. But I’m not in love with you. My heart is with one person, and I will love him until the day I die." She reaches out to touch the top of Resa’s hand resting along the windowsill. "So, you see, I do understand. All too well."
Resa regards her with respect and appreciation. "Yes. You do."
For several moments after both women sit in silence, each preoccupied with the memories of their past loves. Then Lillian turns to Resa, her curiosity piqued. "What about with you? How did you and Jennifer meet?"
Resa thinks about this, trying to find a way to best summarize the convoluted and strange circumstances that surrounded their coming together. "Well, she was in college and wanted to write a book, or needed to write a book for her class and met a priest who’s a friend of mine who thought we should meet but… there was this…fight and, we, ah, ended up hiding in a convent and, um…" She suddenly smiles in abashment at her flagrant hopelessness at giving the tale its due. "Basically, it’s a long story."
"Apparently," Lillian agreed wryly. "Did you know each other very long?"
To this Resa nearly laughs. The abbreviated duration of her time spent with Jennifer is not something she can effectively explain, even to herself. Falling in love so fast seems wildly incomprehensible, particularly for her, but it is the undeniable truth of her life and there is no sense in denying it.
"Less than a week," she informs Lillian and is not surprised by her wide-eyed reaction.
"It must have been quite a week," the other woman remarks ironically.
"It was." Resa nods, then lowers her eyes as a wave of sadness crests over her. "I last saw her the morning before you found me."
Lillian Chen seems unsurprised. "I see. Well, that explains a great deal." She pauses, her hesitation revealing the internal conflict between her desire for tact and the curiosity that rages within. Curiosity finally wins out. "Is she alive?" she asks.
"Yes. Last I checked."
"And when was that?"
"Six months ago." The statement, though impassively delivered, hurts her heart. She has not talked about Jennifer since their separation, choosing instead to bury the memory of their time together, and its wealth of meaning, within the innermost workings of her soul, until it has taken on an almost fantastical quality that defies easy definition. But commenting on it aloud, even in such general terms, brings about a resurgence of regret and heartache at the unmistakable actuality of her loss and she finds she no longer wishes to discuss the matter. She instead wants it to go away.
"You…do not return to her," Lillian points out thoughtfully.
"No." The single word is flat and decisive and she feels herself itch with impatience as she searches for a means out of this conversation.
Lillian tips her head to one side. "Why?"
"It’s better not to."
"Better for whom?"
"For Jennifer. She’s safe."
Lillian digests this a moment then says quietly, "As are you."
Resa bristles at the gentle censure in the other woman’s tone and her eyes narrow. "What do you mean?"
"Loving someone and being in a loving relationship can be one of the most frightening things a person can do. Often it’s easier to run away, to hide, than it is to take a chance."
Resa starts to flush. "You don’t know the situation," she bites out in irritation.
"You’re right," Lillian allows. "I don’t." She fixes Resa with a straight, strong look that pierces through her self-designed emotional armor and deflates her growing ire. "But I do know people and I feel I have grown to know you to some extent over these past six months. I know that you are harder on yourself than anyone else I have ever met, even Brian, and that, my friend, is saying something. I know that you tend to blame yourself for things over which you have no control and for which you deserve no guilt. I know you only feel comfortable when your shoulders slump with the weight of your responsibility and I know that you would rather suffer alone than reach out a hand to anyone else who could potentially offer you help."
She pauses as the room is filled by the sound of a passing freight truck on the nearby street. When the last echo fades Lillian continues, her manner more reflective. "Have you ever heard the Zen parable about the man holding onto a rock in the middle of a raging river?" she asks and Resa shakes her head. "He is being tossed about, bashed from side to side until he is beaten nearly senseless. Yet still he clings to this rock, refusing to let go even as others standing on the side beg for him to do so."
"Why won’t he let go?" Resa asks.
"Because he is afraid. Afraid to let go. Afraid of the unknown that awaits him further down the river. It could provide him with salvation…but it just as easily could provide him with death. So he remains where he is, holding tight to the pain he already knows rather than risking a pain that is all together new."
Resa absorbs the spirit of the story, fully aware of its intended significance but smiles sadly in return.
"The difference is," she counters. "I have been down that river, in more ways than one, and I’ve seen what lies ahead." She shakes her head emphatically. "I won’t put Jennifer in that sort of risk. I love her too much."
"But rivers change all the time," Lillian insists. "You may think you know them well, but sometimes they surprise you."
"But most of the time, they don’t."
Lillian sighs in muted frustration, her eyes down turned for nearly a full minute as she struggles to process the developments of the past hour.
"So, you are going to leave, then?" she asks at last, the resignation in her tone evident.
"Do you know where you will go?"
"No. Not yet."
"Let me help—"
Resa holds up a hand. "No. I’ll take it from here." Her eyes fall briefly to the scars that lie upon her flesh, staring back as a vivid reminder of so many different things. "You’ve done enough for me, more than enough. I can never repay you."
Much to her surprise, Lillian replies with a soft, "Actually…you can."
Resa frowns. "How?"
Dark eyes now burn with the fire of intent. "Promise me one thing before you go," she entreats.
Resa hesitates, torn between wanting to agree to whatever she may suggest and knowing that to do so may be impossible. "If I can," she replies cautiously.
Lillian nods, accepting this response. She reaches out to take hold of Resa’s hands and looks up into her eyes with a persuasive plea across her lovely face. "Life seldom offers us second opportunities, Resa. I know I will never have one to be with Brian and I would give anything to have it. Even if it was only for a brief period of time." She squeezes Resa’s hands between her own. "If, however, you are ever given another chance to be with the one you love, I ask only that you at least consider taking it. Don’t brush it off. Don’t run away. Think about it. Respect the opportunity. Understand how rare it can be."
Resa contemplates her odd, though impassioned, request, knowing the likelihood of such an instance arising to be highly improbable. Then, slowly, she nods. But her response is not sufficient and Lillian’s hold upon her hands tightens with the ardor of her appeal.
"Say it," Lillian urges. "Say it out loud and it will become real."
Resa hesitates then, moved by the power of the other woman’s petition as well as her own longing, she whispers, "I promise."
And somewhere tucked away in the back of her heart, where she keeps her most cherished hopes and dreams, she desperately, desperately wishes there truly can be a chance, even a small one, for it possibly, someday, to come true…
* * *
"I don’t know if I really believed in it at the time," Resa said, her voice quiet with contemplation. "But, as it turns out, when the moment arrived, that’s exactly what I did. Last night, when I stood there listening to what you had to say, hearing your words, feeling your voice wash over me after all these months, I thought about what Lillian had said to me. I thought about how scared I was, how my staying away from you might have had as much to do with my own fear as it did with my wanting to keep you safe." She sat down on the coffee table opposite Jennifer, her unseeing eyes fastened on the grain in the hardwood floor beneath her bare feet. "I didn’t believe it when Lillian suggested it. I’d convinced myself of the righteousness of my actions, that I was doing the right thing. But deep down, I was also afraid. More afraid of taking the chance to be happy with you than I have been of anything else in my life. I’ve never been in a situation like this before." She released an unsteady breath. "And I-- I’m scared I won’t know what to do…"
The last of the words faded into the quiet of the room and Resa was too agitated to look up at Jennifer, who had yet to move from her place on the couch. Instead, she reached out to take hold of Jennifer’s hand in an almost reverent manner, as if it were an object unto itself, wholly precious and easily lost. She turned the palm face up and let her gaze travel over the deep grooves that played like lines of a map across its surface and slowly bent her head to place a kiss of infinite tenderness upon the warm, salty skin in an act that seemed close to a benediction. Then she glanced up and their eyes met for the first time since she’d begun speaking and she was astounded to see Jennifer’s face awash with tears.
Before she could draw a breath to speak, to ask her what was the matter, the younger woman leaned forward to press against her lips a soft kiss that brought tears to Resa’s own eyes. Oddly, given the combustible nature of their sexual chemistry, the kiss itself did not immediately ignite the flames of passion, as it were, for this was a gesture indicative of a state beyond such things. Rather this was intended to be (and was received as) a message of unending love and devotion, a vow of sorts between two people who oftentimes found themselves lost in the depth of their own emotions. When they broke apart Resa felt the sensation of teardrops as they slid out from the corners of her eyes and traveled unhindered down the sides of her cheeks, her heart filled to the point of pain while she recognized, if only for an instant, the magnitude of their bond.
Resa leaned forward until their heads were touching. She didn’t speak for the simple reason she could think of nothing adequate to say, no way to effectively encapsulate within the restriction of language how she felt, how blessed and complete. She wasn’t a poet or a writer or anything remotely approaching creative in terms of expression and for the first time in her life she regretted that fact. She wanted desperately to tell Jennifer what was in her heart, yet found she could not.
But, as it turned out, she was not the only one lamenting the inadequacies of verbal communication.
A motion caught her attention and drew her eyes downward as she watched Jennifer deliberately reach out to the front of her Oxford to begin unbuttoning the shirt, one, two three…until it fell open, exposing her flesh as much as her soul. She made no protest as Jennifer laid both of her hands against Resa’s shoulders and slowly, sensuously, slid the material off her body, leaving the dark-haired woman naked from the waist up. The tempo of her pulse quickened and she swallowed hard, the back of her throat dry. She was in such close proximity to Jennifer that she could hear the quiet elevation in the other woman’s breathing and felt the slight tremble in her touch as it played across Resa’s sensitive skin.
Jennifer moved forward and Resa felt the electric contact of lips caressing the curve of her neck, against the scar left by the bullet that united them so long ago. She closed her eyes and a soft moan escaped as Jennifer’s hands slowly moved down Resa’s body, her palms tracing every dip and curve along the way until they could reach no further given their present positions. Resa sucked in her breath and moved to push Jennifer backwards onto the plushness of the down-filled couch. She placed her hands on either side of the smaller woman’s head and stretched out above her, shifting to allow the lower halves of their bodies full contact. Jennifer’s hand curved around the back of Resa’s right thigh, gradually working its way up, well past the cotton sweat shorts and Resa found herself unconsciously arching into the young woman as the heat radiating between them intensified.
Resa leaned down to capture Jennifer’s mouth, reveling in the taste and feel of her, the beauty in the way they fit together, the rightness of their coupling. One kiss led to another and another, each growing more ardent, slanting this way and that. Jennifer’s fingers dug into her naked back as Resa pressed in close again, caught up in a clinging desire fueled, in no small part, by impatience.
She shifted her weight to one side, freeing her other hand to quickly unfasten the buttons on the smaller woman’s white blouse and tossed the garment aside. She covered Jennifer’s body with her own, kissing the curve of her neck, deliberately pressing their hips together until she heard a shuddered groan close to her ear. She grinned to herself, knowing already what type of pleasures the younger woman enjoyed and having every intention of giving them to her…
…so, of course the phone rang.
Resa didn’t break for a second as she murmured, "Don’t get that."
Jennifer shook her head, one hand sliding against Resa’s abdomen. "Won’t." And she continued her exploring, eliciting a sharp intake of the taller woman’s breath that left no doubt how things would progress.
But then something beyond either of their control happened; the machine picked up and the singsong voice of a woman who had to be well into her middle age rang through loud and clear.
Resa felt Jennifer’s body freeze beneath her touch and heard the muffled wail of her "Oh, shit!" vibrate against the side of her left breast.
The voice continued. "We’re here at the airport but don’t seem to see you anywhere. We’ve had you paged--"
Jennifer scrambled up from underneath Resa and practically dove, half-naked, to grab the phone.
"I’m here, I’m here!" she repeated breathlessly, the silky sheen of sweat across her shoulders glowing in the sunlight and making Resa want to cry out from the agony of frustration. She dropped her head back against the arm of the sofa as she attempted to quell the ache of her body and thrumming of her heartbeat, with only partial success.
After a few minutes of primarily one-sided conversation, Jennifer clicked off the phone and replaced the receiver with painstaking care back into its cradle as if she were fighting to prevent herself from hurling it across the room. The blonde woman reached down to grab her shirt off the floor, then instead of putting it on right away, rubbed fingers across the tension that knotted her brow before letting out a humorless chuckle.
"You know, one of these days we’re going to look back at this moment and laugh…" She dropped her hand to her side, muttering, "I hope," and then slipped the shirt back on.
Resa sat up, extremely aware that they were not going to continue where they had left off. "That was your mom," she surmised.
"And she’s in town with your dad, between flights somewhere."
"And, they’re on their way over."
"Boy, you’re good."
Resa grabbed her own shirt off the coffee table and stood. "I should leave," she said decisively as she buttoned up the Oxford.
"Why?" Jennifer asked as she watched her with a rueful expression, which earned her a wry look.
"Think about it."
There was a long pause as Jennifer did just that, her green eyes clearly revealing the pensiveness she felt. But, a moment later, the younger woman floored her by saying with calm conviction, "I’m going to tell them."
Caught off-guard by the simple statement, made with a trace of defiance, Resa felt uncertain as to what her response should be, what she should say to such a potentially combustible declaration. She watched the younger woman very closely before cautiously asking, "Are you sure you want to do that?"
Jennifer tensed. "Yes." Her eyes grew hooded. "Is there a reason why I shouldn’t?"
There are many reasons why you shouldn’t, she thought, but held her tongue. Instead she said, "I just want to make sure you’re prepared. I can’t imagine a discussion like that is going to be a walk in the park."
"I know," she said, raising her chin in a hint of rebelliousness. "But, I want to do it."
Resa continued to watch her for a few solemn moments more, all too aware that she was wholly inexperienced in matters of intimate relationships, so much so that every step she took made her feel clumsy, which was quite new for her. Still, she had enough common sense to recognize the boldness of such a step that Jennifer was proposing and the likely ramifications it would render and she couldn’t help feel it was unwise. A great deal had happened to them in a short period of time, too much for either woman to fully process. To act now was risky and Resa didn’t want to have her friend hurt. That said, she could see the idea wasn’t going to go away, that Jennifer felt too strongly about this and, sensing it better to keep her doubts to herself, she decided not to push the issue.
"It’s up to you," she said enigmatically, then, not knowing what else to add, she turned to head for the stairs. But she would not escape so easily.
"I’d like you to be here," Jennifer said from behind her, bringing her up short.
Resa turned back to face the younger woman. "That’s just not a good idea," she said, the words tumbling out of her mouth before she could check them.
Jennifer crossed her arms over her chest. "Why?" she demanded as
irritation radiated off her in tangible waves and Resa felt her own frustration
start to boil over.
"Why?" she repeated. "How about because you’re basically, I dunno, ‘coming out’ I guess is the term, to your parents and at the same time saying, oh, by the way, here’s my girlfriend, the ex-gang member and drug trafficker and, while we’re at it, convicted felon. They’re going to have a fucking heart attack."
"Resa, the fundamentals of the situation aren’t going to change whether I tell them now or next year. Your past just is what it is and my parents just are who they are. There is no easy way around this, no icebreaker that’s going to make them less upset. But I am in love with you and I plan to have you in my life for a very long time and that means telling them about you. If they freak out that’s their problem. Not mine."
Resa sighed, recognizing the underlying bravado of the words and knowing that Jennifer was saying this as much for her own benefit as for Resa’s. For a moment she was struck by the irony of this dispute coming so quickly on the heels of their near lovemaking and she wished with all her might that the phone call had not come through when it did, that they had been given at least a little more time to grow comfortable with the radical change in both of their lives before having to confront the outside world in all its harsh complexity. But that was not the hand they had been dealt.
"Look," she said. "I’ve never had to go through this. Any of this. So I don’t know what the procedure is."
This only seemed to pique Jennifer even further. "Like I do? Resa, I’ve never even been with another woman, never even thought about it. This is all new for me, too. I’m just following my heart and my heart tells me I should tell them. Now. Today. And that I would like you there with me."
"They’ll end up blaming me," she countered.
"I won’t let them."
"You can’t control that." She shook her head. "Jennifer…" she began, then stopped herself, willing her anxiety and exasperation down to a more manageable level. A moment later she continued, her voice calmer. "I only want you to think about this a little more. Telling them is going to fundamentally change your relationship. You shouldn’t just rush into it, for your sake as much as your parents’."
Jennifer glanced away, jaw shifting repeatedly and Resa saw the muscle in the side of her face pulsate with repressed anger. Nearly a full minute passed before the younger woman spoke, her voice controlled but firm. "Fine. You don’t have to be here for it." Green eyes met hers. "But I am going to tell them."
They stared at each other for a couple beats more before Resa nodded once, then turned to head up the stairs.
* * * *
Jennifer stared out the window at the relative tranquility of her front yard and watched a silver BMW pass by until it took a curve out of sight. Her eyes then fell upon a lone sparrow pecking in the grass beneath her elm tree, searching with admirable determination for something that appeared not to be there. A few moments later the little bird took flight and soared off into the sky, whether or not it was successful in its quest she did not know, though she hoped it was.
She chewed her lower lip.
Given that in less than twenty-four hours her life, once sedate and orderly with the occasional lapse into outright boredom, was in the process of rapidly crumbling around her ears, Jennifer thought she was dealing with the unfolding situation remarkably well. Of course her heart was like a hummingbird trapped within the walls of her chest and her palms were wet while her mouth was dry, but she wasn’t hysterical and that, she felt, at least deserved some commendation. Once Resa left, however, her state of being might be a different matter altogether.
She drew in what she hoped was a steadying breath and slowly expelled it, then wiped her hands against her shorts and tried to wrap her mind around the fact her parents were on their way over while her female lover was getting dressed upstairs in order to leave before they arrived so she could then drop the A-bomb of all possible disclosures in the middle of her otherwise tranquil familial situation. Astounding.
Perhaps Resa is right, she considered warily. Perhaps I should wait.
Her heart didn’t want to, though. Her heart wanted to shout it from the rooftops to any and all who cared to listen. But she was judicious enough, despite her youth, to realize that perhaps the heart was not always the wisest of guides and she found herself, all at once, deeply confused. It had seemed so clear only minutes earlier, when the impulse first arrived and passed through her lips in the form of the declarative statement in one continuous, uncensored wave. But the look on Resa’s face, the caution and concern, made her now think twice about what had initially seemed so natural, so fated. Should she tell her folks now, like this, with no preparation, almost no time between the actualization and their arrival? Or should she wait, and if so, then the question became, wait for what?
Wait for what?
A sound behind her caught her attention and she turned to see Resa descend the staircase, dressed now in the jeans and black T-shirt she wore from the night before, with the long, dark coat draped over her right arm. For a fraction of a second, Jennifer saw the other woman as if through a stranger’s eyes, seeing, as a stranger would see, the raw force of her presence; the leonine grace and power in the way in which she carried herself; the elegance and beauty that mixed with the undeniable toughness and sometimes infuriating intractitude. And when light blue eyes swung around to meet hers, she was reminded of their first electric meeting, the first time she encountered the hypnotic intensity of that gaze.
Was I hers from that moment, she wondered in near awe. Was it as simple as that?
Resa smiled hesitantly and Jennifer smiled in return. But she also recognized the distance that had sprung up between them, due in part to their quarrel, and was drawing a breath to say something that she hoped would ease the quiet discomfiture when the honking of a horn from outside forestalled her.
A quick glance out a window confirmed that the taxi had arrived and that it was, regrettably, time for Resa to leave. Jennifer felt a bit ill. Not yet, she thought in something close to desperation. It’s too soon.
Neither spoke. Instead they moved forward in unison with a sort of dazed finality until they were both standing on the front steps of her home, the sun having moved further along the sky so a patch of shadow now enshrouded them. She felt newly cool.
There were no less than a thousand things Jennifer wanted to say at that precise moment, all warring within her, crowding and tumbling over each other until she found she could articulate nothing whatsoever. She loathed the thought that they should part like this, but try as she might, she could not find the words to make everything suddenly sunny and congenial. She momentarily closed her eyes and swallowed hard, willing herself not to cry and though her lower lip threatened to tremble, she succeeded in keeping herself under control.
Resa crossed over to the cab and spoke briefly to the driver, then tossed her coat in through the open passenger window and turned back to face Jennifer, who had not moved, had barely dared to breath. For a moment, Jennifer thought it possible that the other woman might get in the car right then and there and the notion made her sick with impotence.
But Resa didn’t do that. Rather, she closed the distance between them and reached out to cup the back of Jennifer’s head, unceremoniously drawing her against her long, lean body and into a deep, fearless kiss that Jennifer emphatically returned. She memorized every moment, every touch and sensation that rocketed within her and wished, more than anything, that she did not have to let go. But she did.
Resa pulled back yet still held both sides of her face, eyes boring into her with an almost ferocious intensity as she said, "Do what you think is right. Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to anyone else but yourself. Okay?"
Jennifer nodded, not quite trusting her voice, and Resa leaned forward to place a tender kiss upon her forehead.
Say something, her mind screamed desperately. Ask her when she’s coming back. Don’t part like this, not like this.
But, though she opened her mouth to speak and Resa paused as if to hear what she had to say, she found no words forthcoming. Instead she felt strangely paralyzed, as if somewhere along the line she had become curiously disengaged from her own body and was watching their farewell with a third party’s perspective, interested but not fully involved. It made no sense.
Resa took pity on her, caressing the side of her face, her cheek, her neck, before reaching down to take both of her hands into her own. "I love you," she said with a quiet certitude yet even to this Jennifer found she could not respond. She did love Resa, of that she had no doubt, but forming the words proved beyond her capability at this moment so, once again, she nodded mutely and hated herself for her failure.
Resa smiled almost shyly then turned to walk back to the cab. She entered and a moment later the car shifted into gear.
Jennifer caught one last fleeting glimpse of blue eyes before the taxi backed up the impossibly narrow road outside her home, shifted forward and drove off. And as it progressed, a peculiar sensation came over her. She felt, suddenly, as if the past twenty- four hours, with all their strange, unexpected twists and discoveries, with their promise and beauty, had been nothing more than an extraordinary dream. With each second as the cab drove further and further away, out of sight, out of her realm, it was as if she were slowly waking up, finding herself on the front steps of her newly purchased home and wondering aloud, "How did I get here?"
There was no answer.
Just then, a man and woman, dressed in the casual simpatico of a couple who had been together for some length of time, walked hand-in-hand down the road and passed by her home, comfortable enough in each others presence to not feel the compulsion to speak, their two Labradors trundling ahead, not even straining at their leashes. They were such a typical sight, so innocuous in their normalcy, that they almost failed to register in her consciousness, until she realized, with a quiet chill, that that would never be her. She would never be able to be with the one she loved and be totally accepted by those around her to the point of disregard, by those she knew and by others whom she would never meet but who would still see her hand-in-hand with Resa and think it somehow odd, somehow different, even if they totally accepted the notion on a philosophical level. She was, she realized, on the verge of journeying down a road about which she hadn’t a clue, not a fucking clue and she was suddenly terrified. Utterly, undeniably, mind-numbingly terrified.
She turned on her heel and walked back into her house.
* * * *
I handled that all wrong, Resa mentally chided herself as the cab made its way down a tight road that twisted its way through the Hollywood Hills. Wind rushed through the open back window, whipping her loose hair all about with careless abandon but she paid it no heed.
She’s not going to understand. She’s going to be pissed. God, I can be such a fucking idiot sometimes!
For a moment she considered telling the cab driver to turn around, to take her back. But she remained mute and the car drove on.
She glanced at the passing scenery, taking in the expensive cars parked along the road beside million dollar homes and though this neighborhood was technically only a couple miles from her own current residence, she couldn’t help but feel like a tourist in a foreign country. This place, the Hills of Hollywood with all its elegance, its understated wealth and history, was as removed from her world as Jennifer’s Santa Monica neighborhood had once been, perhaps even more so.
And I don’t belong in either, she mused wryly, turning her head in time to catch the cab driver’s glance at her, though he looked away the moment he realized he’d been caught.
Whatcha lookin’ at, old man? she wondered. The Latina or the lesbian? She laughed to herself, then mused, Hell, probably both.
Suddenly bone-weary, she leaned her head back against the top of the cracked, vinyl seat and stared at the peeling roof of the car.
How did I get here? she wondered to herself. How the fuck did I…
* * * *
Jennifer stood in her kitchen, right hip leaning into the side of the tile counter. She stared at the porcelain frog figurine salt-n-pepper shakers that her nephew Skylar had painted for her last Christmas and tried to make some sense of her life.
Who in the world would have ever thought she would end up like this? So astonishingly different from what she could have ever possibly imagined while growing up in Kansas, in the heart of America?
Given this brief time for reflection before the arrival of her parents she could not recall just what it was exactly she used to envision for herself as an adolescent. Certainly not this, not being in love with a woman and definitely not a woman the likes of Resa Gustavez. It was funny, but in the past year and a half the most glaring, intrinsic obstacle of her emotional attachment to the former gang leader had truly not occurred to her. Gender had never been an issue, not even a consideration. Resa was simply Resa and that was all there was to it, at least as far as she was concerned. But, she was not so naïve that she failed to realize others would undoubtedly see things in a different light, as indeed she was about to face head-on with the arrival of her parents.
She felt queasy, her skin clammy.
How will I explain this to them? What will I say?
When she was younger, before the first brush of maturity had been felt across her self-awareness, she would try to picture where she would be in ten years or more, say by the time she turned twenty-five. And though she could never form a vivid picture in terms of relationships, she had rather dismissively assumed, as so many young girls reared in the bosom of conservative ideals were inclined to assume, that she would be married and have at least one child, possibly even planning for a second. And when she would have such a notion, it would, as often as not, leave her mildly depressed for reasons she was as yet too limited to realize.
Am I gay, she questioned. Then, considering how she’d spent the past evening and the better part of this morning she felt entirely absurd at the thought.
Yet, the question persisted. It wasn’t as if she’d been attracted to other women in the past. She honestly hadn’t. But, admittedly, her sexual experience was significantly limited, both by the culture in which she had been raised and by the way her life had evolved to this point. Curtis Eliot had been her first sexual partner and she had made him wait a great long while before they consummated their relationship, which, though quaint by the standards of many, was still quite common practice in the Heartland. And since the time of their break-up, she had been too focused on her school and her potential career to allow herself to be distracted by romantic thoughts. Until, of course, Resa Gustavez stormed her way into her life and changed everything with just one look. Now she didn’t quite know what she was.
Can a woman be in love with a woman and not be gay? she wondered in confusion. Just be in love with that one woman and that’s it? Does it work like that? Does it even matter? Am I going nuts?
Or am I already there?
* * * *
The cab drove off and Resa unlocked her car, a black ’96 Honda Accord, which was parked outside the Borders Books & Music, exactly where she’d left it the night before.
Warm, stale air greeted her as she plopped down into the driver’s seat and she immediately started the car in order to activate the automatic windows, lowering them quickly. For several minutes she sat unmoving, ignoring the music that wafted in from the radio as she stared straight ahead. Seeing nothing.
Where do I go from here? she wondered. Do I drive around for a few hours, maybe catch a movie, then call to check if Jennifer’s parents are gone yet so I can…what? Sneak over?
She shook her head in disgust. No. That wouldn’t do. She felt too juvenile, too furtive, as if she’d done something wrong and it annoyed her, frustrated her, even angered her.
It shouldn’t be like this, she thought peevishly. She should be able to love Jennifer openly and honestly, without any nebulous guilt factor. As a supremely independent soul, it galled her to be concerned over the approval (or, more likely, disapproval) of someone else, of people she didn’t even know. She hated that. Passionately.
This is bullshit. Plain bullshit…
…but it was also the way things worked in the world in which she lived and, if she was going to forge a new life with Jennifer, as she desperately wanted to do, then she would have to face those issues with honesty. Confront them, deal with them. Suck it up and be brave. Yes, that was it…
Oh, but it was, as she well knew, soooo much easier said than done. And all at once she felt a weakness begin to seep within her, a susceptibility.
You know you don’t have to go back, a little voice inside her said. Jennifer doesn’t know where you live, doesn’t know where you work, doesn’t have a single way of getting in contact with you. You can leave here and keep driving. It would be so much easier, better, wiser, kinder to keep driving…
No, she angrily shook her head. No, I’m committed to this. I’m committed to Jennifer. I made a promise, a vow. And I want to be with her. I want this. I do…
And she did. Unquestionably. But, she couldn’t stop the voice, couldn’t quite squash the wellspring of doubt and criticism that bubbled up within her. She had admonished Jennifer for not thinking out what she was going to say to her parents, but had she, Resa, really taken the time to consider what she was about to do? How her life was teetering on the edge of radical change, total revolution? Had she thought about what the consequences would prove to be for her? To be totally honest, she realized that she had not. Hadn’t worked through the concept of what their life together would entail and she felt panic start to gather in the pit of her stomach.
"Don’t do this," she lashed out at herself, unaware that she’d even spoken aloud. "Don’t fuck this up!"
The words hung in the air for a long moment. Then she reached over to put the car in gear and drove off, all the while attempting to ignore the growing sense of anxiety that floated around the periphery of her consciousness, waiting…waiting…
It’s just because I’m not around Jennifer, she thought angrily, but the complexity of their situation and the unjustness of what loomed ahead seemed to suddenly weigh down upon her with an unrelenting pressure.
Her head began to ache and her stomach clenched and she found, for a moment, that she hated the whole goddamn world for putting her in this situation, for making her feel as if she had somehow done something wrong by loving someone else, that Jennifer was, yet again, going to be made to feel pain because she had committed the inexcusable sin of falling in love with her, with Resa Gustavez, former gang leader and, worst of all, woman. Personally, Resa didn’t give a shit what others thought about her, if they disapproved of her choice in whom she loved because it conflicted with their beliefs, their supposed "morals." They could pretty much all fuck off as far as she was concerned.
But, when it came to Jennifer, her feelings were not so defiant. It galled her to no end knowing that Jennifer Logan would be subjected to such prejudice and intolerance. She was such a good-hearted person, a giving soul that deserved to be treated with respect, not condemnation by groups of people who failed to live by the very principles they presumed to impose on the rest of the world.
She rubbed the tension coursing through the back of her neck.
Will my life ever be easy, was a bemused question she had grown accustomed to asking of herself from time to time, but now, right now, she realized with absolute certainty that the truth of the answer was, no. Her life would never be easy. Not if she continued on this path, not if she decided to start a life with Jennifer. It might, perhaps, become less difficult, but it would never, ever be easy and she suddenly felt the urge to cry out in anger.
You don’t have to go back, the little voice whispered again, sliding past the emotional defenses that she was too tired at present to maintain, and for a moment she considered it, considered the possibility…
"I don’t have to go back," she said aloud, trying out the words for herself. "No one’s forcing me. No one’s holding a gun to my head…"
…and wouldn’t it be easier? she continued to reason. For Jennifer? Wouldn’t it be for the best for her…?
She turned left at the light and pointed her car in the direction of her home, aware, all the while, that a grim little refrain was dancing about the corners of her mind,
I don’t have to go back…I don’t have to go back…
* * * *
She might not come back.
After tidying up the house, Jennifer had decided to change her clothes before her parents arrived, opting for a pair of black slacks and a long sleeved, rust-colored silk blouse and was in the middle of checking her hair for the fourth time when the niggling thought popped into her mind like an unwelcome guest.
That’s what you’re really afraid of, isn’t it? That she won’t return. That’s the real reason you wanted her to be with you when you told them, right? Because you’re afraid she doesn’t need you as much as you need her…you’re afraid, so very afraid…
She set down her hairbrush with an unsteady hand and faced her reflection in the mirror. Green eyes flecked with gold and blue stared back, and in their depths she had to admit to herself that she saw fear. Genuine, childish, and chilling.
…she might not come back.
Her shoulders slumped and she had her answer. Of course that was what she feared; it was her greatest fear, so great it was almost incomprehensible, paralyzing. What if she went ahead, told her parents about Resa and their relationship and suffered through all the inevitable chaos that would come with such a disclosure, only to find it was all for naught, that Resa wasn’t coming back…?
Her throat was dry and her skin moist and her heart pounded out a fine bosso nova, all of which were unequivocal signs of her own imminent cowardice.
"I can’t do this," she realized as a sweat started to break out along her temples. "Oh, God…I can’t tell them…"
She turned away from the mirror, feeling an odd sense of shame, and moved onto the balcony that connected to her bedroom.
Once the cool breeze touched her skin, she calmed a bit, but the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach remained and, as was the inclination for all panicked people, she began to search for a way out of the impending situation.
Resa was right. I don’t have to tell them anything, she began to reason with willful self-delusion. After all, they’re here for a couple hours, while they wait for their connecting plane. Then they’ll be gone and there is absolutely no reason to raise this issue now.
No. There’s no point in telling them now. She needed to wait until…wait until…
…when? A few weeks? Months? Years?
Wait until when?
"Until I’m certain," she realized to herself. And she knew then, with near violent self-disgust, that she was not completely certain now. Even after last night, after all Resa’s assurances, after looking in her eyes and knowing as well as any human being can know that she loved her, Jennifer Logan still had doubts. It tormented her, left her feeling guilty and insecure.
Where is your faith? a part of her asked cold-bloodedly.
"I don’t know…" Then she was forced to concede, "With Resa…"
Well then, that isn’t faith at all, now is it? the inner voice persisted. That’s merely convenience.
Jennifer swallowed hard, too afraid to answer, and found herself both wishing that the day was over and, conversely, that it had never begun. Everything seemed to be happening at once, her world spinning in all possible directions and leaving her deliriously unfocused and hopelessly lost. Love was supposed to conquer all, not conquer the one who loved, right? Then why did she feel like this? Why did she feel as if she was weak and had no faith? For what, exactly, was she waiting?
A distinct noise intruded on her thoughts. She swallowed hard at her trepidation as she recognized the ring of the front doorbell echoing about the house and realized that her time for reflection and deliberation was over.
Her parents had arrived.
* * * *
At the end of the block, Resa found a space between two cars, a gold El Camino and a rusting blue van, to park her Honda. Willing her mind blank, she grabbed her long coat and exited the car, activating the alarm with an unconscious flick of a button, not bothering to process the single chirping sound it made.
Without realizing it, she walked with her head down and her shoulders hunched forward, her mind zeroing in on the cracked cement that passed under her feet and little else. She did not want to think anymore, did not want to feel the pressure, the burden of confusion and the guilt of second-guessing. But her mind was naturally too active to be completely shut down and unwanted thoughts were soon traipsing about with troubling freedom. She had not foreseen any of this, had not thought it possible, after last night and that morning, to again question the properness of her decision and was thus left more vulnerable than she could have imagined.
She loved Jennifer. With every part of her there was to love, every ounce, every fiber, every thought and hope and dream and yet somehow that was still not enough to silence her relentless uncertainty. What would it take? Would there ever be such a moment? A time of absolute certainty? Or was that merely the stuff of fairytales?
A high-pitched squeal drew her attention and her head shot up, but she quickly realized that the noise had only been the childish yelp of a little boy no more than four, as he ran giggling down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, away from his tired-looking mother.
Resa stopped his progress and watched a moment as the mother called out, "Salvador!" in a voice both stern and weary yet still suffused with maternal affection. The little, dark-haired boy, having heard this tone before and recognizing in it the end of the game, turned his direction around at once and scurried back to his mother’s side as they turned a corner and entered the front yard of their woefully neglected two-story apartment complex. A moment later and the duo were gone.
Resa watched after them for several moments longer, not certain what it was she was wanting or hoping to see, what it was about this image that drew her. Then she slowly turned her attention to examine the whole of the block with the subtle appreciation that was found only in one who was considering it from a stranger’s perspective…from Jennifer’s perspective.
There was, at first glance, or perhaps even at second or third, very little beauty to be found in the neighborhood in which she had spent the past year, since leaving Lillian and the shelter behind. It was not much more than plots of land that had been lamentably overdeveloped, resulting in buildings being constructed practically on top of each other. Of the dozen or so virtually identical apartment complexes that crowded the street, only one had allowed any room for a vague semblance of a yard, which was really no more than a sadly neglected patch of brown grass. Everything else was pure pavement, surrounded by steel, metal, or chain-link fences. Once there had been attempts at lawns, but the late night sport of "trenching" (an enduring tradition born out of boredom and booze where a car is driven onto someone’s yard with the sole intent being to leave deep tire tracks like so many scars in the earth) eliminated that. No yard left unfenced was safe, thus making the luxury of having one more of a burden than it was worth. The result was a concrete jungle of sorts that inadvertently provoked a sense of depression within the inhabitants.
The buildings themselves were constructed for economic purposes only. There was little, if any, attention paid to aesthetic interest. Occasionally someone would get creative with their color scheme, breaking out the pinks or pistachio greens but, for the most part, the look of choice was a dull, flat, uniform off-white that was chosen simply because it was best at hiding the dirt and decay.
Resa glanced up at the sky and noted that it was as fine a pale blue down here, amid the downtrodden and unworthy, as it had been from the balcony of Jennifer’s house. But the veritable forest of apartment buildings, which she hated, marred the view from where she stood. It was this sort of claustrophobia that forced her to venture out onto the roof of her complex, which was, naturally, expressly forbidden by the management but was an edict she easily and frequently ignored. She needed her way of escape, her method of breaking free from the walls that surrounded her, day in, day out, at every turn, and going to the roof was the easiest means. She wasn’t the sort of person who could too long tolerate being cooped up, a condition that had plagued her even before she’d spent her time in the confines of her prison cell but had undoubtedly been worsened by her incarceration.
At that memory she shuddered. God, what a nightmare that had been. But she’d survived it and somehow managed to come out relatively unscathed, though unquestionably changed. No person who spent any amount of time locked up could emerge unaffected and she was no exception. Yet, painful as that time had been, she had learned a great deal about herself from her experience and for that she would, ironically, be grateful.
Somewhere a dog began barking with a rabid fury and Resa was pulled from her reverie.
Shaking her head to clear the preoccupation, she moved forward toward her own apartment. She passed through the half-open, iron-railed gate that bordered her complex and crossed through the dark, narrow threshold. Once inside the tiny vestibule, she retrieved her keys from her jeans pocket and opened up her vertical, brass mail chute, grabbed the assortment of letters without regard, and walked up the stairs on her way to the third floor.
In the past year, she had paid little attention to the finer details of her own residence, choosing instead to block them out as she had succeeded in blocking out so many distasteful things when they proved beyond her control.
But today it was not as easy for her to do that, not easy at all to ignore the decline. Her eyes seemed to be caught up in the unhappy minutia of everything about her; the broken elevator that, as far as anybody knew, had never worked, and forced the residents to use the confined, cement stairwell, which, oftentimes, afforded one the opportunity to see a whole host of illegal activities take place; the circles of gum that stuck to the rubber-edged steps, having long since gone black from the accumulation of a wide variety of filth until they looked like spots on a Dalmatian; the cigarette butts scattered about at every turn like bits of confetti after a parade; the putrid smell of cooked cabbage and fried fish that choked the late afternoon air; walls as thin as paper that refused to shut out the shouts and arguments which came about at all hours of the day and night and were sometimes inescapable even when she snuck out onto the roof. It was a place that bespoke desolation and despair and had been a perfect reflection of her outlook on life, on her view of herself, when she had first arrived. She hadn’t notice these things then, hadn’t really cared. But now she did.
She paused at the third floor, her floor, and noted that the metal door that was supposed to be there in order to block out the noises, which tended to echo up the stairwell, was newly missing. Only the hinges remained, looking like little copper hands reaching out for something that was no longer there. Lord only knew who would want a door like that, but someone clearly had and, seeing no reason not to other than the inherent wrongness of the action itself, which was never a consideration, had apparently stolen it. This in no way surprised her.
She turned down her hallway, which was long and narrow and bleak, with ceilings that were too low and industrial carpet that was well stained and missing several patches. Her apartment was at the very end, beside the hallway window through which she could see the black metal of the fire escape peek out. She unlocked and entered her single-roomed domicile.
With a flick of the wrist she tossed the handful of mail onto the wobbly card table that also served as the place where she took the majority of her meals, when she wasn’t lounging on her futon, and was about to ignore them as so many bills when something peculiar caught her eye. She glanced back at the pile, frowned, then reached with careful fingers to push through the white envelopes to one in particular, one that was neither a bill nor an annoying piece of junk mail.
It was a letter.
The script was hand-written, in what could only be described as pitiful penmanship, which was, nonetheless, strong and bold in its black ink and deep indentation. Then her eyes fell to the Sacramento return address and her hand immediately began to shake with a surge of emotion that took her completely by surprise.
It was from Tarquin. From her brother.
Her first instinct was to sit down right where she was and read every word. But then another impulse prevailed and before she knew it she had taken up her keys, exited her apartment and was scrambling up the metal steps of the fire escape on her way to the flat roof two floors above.
The breeze was stronger up here than it had been down on the street, but it was nothing unmanageable and she quickly made her way to the one spot in the corner that she most favored. She leaned back against an aluminum vent, feeling the warmth seep through her shirt to touch her skin and braced both of her feet against the inner part of the two-foot, stucco wall that surrounded the edge.
For several heartbeats she stared at the short, thick envelope, almost not quite believing that it was really and truly in her hands. Writing to Tarquin after all these years of silence had been a notion that had taken her by surprise when it first occurred to her the month before, brought about by the capricious sighting of someone in the newspaper who bore the same unusual first name. But once the idea had entered her mind she found she could not dispense of it as easily. It stuck with her, creeping up at the strangest times until she finally had to take action.
Her employment enabled her to locate his present address with relative ease and once she had that in her hand what had been an annoying little urge blossomed into a compulsion too great to be ignored, much as having the knowledge of Jennifer’s book discussion had been more temptation than she could withstand.
So, she’d written to him. The letter had been little more than a note, being that she was not naturally inclined to writing and had almost no clue what she wanted to say to her oldest and now only living brother, other than, Hello, I’m not dead and I’m thinking of you, or words to that effect. It was quite an step for her, particularly as she had for so long viewed his departure from the barrio as a sort of defection for which she had resented him with at first a child’s passion and later with the deeply felt acrimony of an adult.
But, slowly, over time, she began to feel admiration for his decision. Despite the myriad of obstacles in his way, Tarquin Gustavez had left the oppression of the gang-infested community and ventured off in search of a new, hopefully improved, way of life. He had known, better than she had known, that he wanted more out of his existence and had somehow mustered enough courage to at least go for it, no matter what. Where he had found such fortitude at such a young age she could not fathom.
Though she knew he must have changed considerably over the years, she still could only picture Tarquin as she last saw him, as a gangly, dark-haired young man, with flashing white teeth and a protruding Adam’s apple that bobbed whenever he spoke or swallowed. He hadn’t been as attractive as she was or as Luis promised to be, but he was not bad looking by any stretch of the imagination. He was smaller than she and stocky and in that way he apparently resembled his father, Nestor, the man their mother had almost married and, if she was to be believed, truly loved. Resa never knew the name of her own father or the man who planted the seed that was to become her youngest brother; it was all part of their own uniquely dysfunctional family order and about as far from Ozzie and Harriet as one could conceive. And yet, despite the pathetic caliber of upbringing she and her brothers had been given, there still managed to develop a bond of sorts between the siblings that somehow survived through the years, after all the pain and suffering and conflict and death. None was more surprised by this recognition than Resa herself.
But that did not mean she was anything less than distinctly nervous as she stared at the innocent looking piece of mail. It was, after all, entirely possible that Tarquin was writing to tell her to leave him alone. And why not? Why wouldn’t he have so completely divorced himself from his past that he would allow for no reminder whatsoever, including one from his own sister? This could, she realized, be a letter of rejection and she surprised herself in how fervently she hoped that such was not the case.
She slid her finger under the sealed flap and carefully tore open the envelope.
The letter itself was hand-written on several sheets of white, lined paper that were neatly stapled in the upper, left-hand corner. His penmanship was, thankfully, more legible in the correspondence than it had been on the outer portion of the envelope and once her eyes fastened on the first two words, she could not tear herself away.
I’ve started this damn letter three times now because I just can’t get my thoughts organized enough. Your letter caught me by surprise. It’s been a long time and I had pretty much given up on hearing from you, but that’s really my fault, too. I could have made the effort, I know. I’m feeling like a real shit right now for not having tried harder to contact you, but I’m glad you didn’t let that stop you from writing to me. There have obviously been a lot of changes in both our lives since we last saw each other. I know about your prison. I can’t really say I’m all that surprised it happened but I am glad you seem to have turned that into a positive thing. Not many people could do that but you’ve always been really strong, so I shouldn’t be surprised.
A lot of things have happened to me, too. Most important is I’m married. I got married to a woman named Rhala and she’s from India. We met in Junior College and she now teaches science at the Montgomery Elementary School. Also, you should know I have two children, which makes you an aunt. How funny is that? Their names are Justin and Pearl. Justin is the oldest at six and Pearl just turned four last month, November 12th. Luckily they look like their mom instead of their ugly old dad! I’ve enclosed a picture that I took at Pearl’s birthday party.
Resa flipped over to the last sheet of paper to see a computer-scanned image of a small group of children, no more than fifteen in total, gathered around a tawny colored horse, atop of which sat a young girl with long, flowing dark hair and a smile of wild, impudent abandon. Seeing her brought a happy, tingling sensation at the center of Resa’s being. Her niece. She didn’t need to be told that. She instinctively knew and the next sentence confirmed it for her.
Pearl’s the one on the pony and Justin is the one in the wizard hat, which he wears all of the time. Rhala assures me it’s just part of his Harry Potter phase. I hope so. Rhala is a good mother and I try hard to be a good dad. I think it’s especially important since we, you and me that is, didn’t have one growing up. Didn’t have much of a mom either.
Speaking of Mama, I know you don’t keep in touch with her but I think you should know that I finally got her out of East LA. She lives in an apartment in Culver City now. Well, actually it’s more like a home. It’s called the Royal Arms Senior Care and it’s a kind of community that’s real helpful, especially for people with disabilities.
Senior care, she repeated to herself in surprise. Disabilities?
The mere idea struck her as unbelievable. The last image she had of her mother was of a fairly young woman, though, admittedly, already showing the ravages of her brutal way of life. Mentally she calculated that her mother had to be in her early fifties at most and that, to her mind, did not qualify for senior status.
She read on.
See, Resa, Mama’s not doing too well. Seems living the way she did while we were growing up finally caught up with her and took its toll. A couple years ago she had a stroke. It messed with her pretty bad and she now has trouble with her memory. She knows who I am mostly but the kids and Rhala are strangers to her. A part of me thinks this might be for the best. She had a real shitty life, you know? It’s probably better she doesn’t remember much of it now. I’m not making excuses for her or anything. She did this to herself and this is the price she’s paying. But I still feel bad for her and all. I know it’s probably pretty stupid, but she is still my mom, despite doing a shitty job of it. So I look out for her. I’ve been working to get her up here in Sacramento, to a home up here where at least she’ll be closer and I think I’ve convinced her to move. That hasn’t been easy. But it’s been kind of hard having her be so far away. I don’t know if you even want to see her at this point, I understand if you don’t, but if you do, you can. I put your name down on the list at the place where she’s staying. There’s no pressure. I just wanted you to know.
Speaking of where people live, I can’t help but notice that your return address is still real close to East Los Angeles. That makes me a little afraid. Well, maybe not afraid so much as concerned. I had hoped you had gotten yourself out of there by now. When you said you were done with the gangs, I figured you had moved out of there all together. I mean, I can tell you’re not exactly in the same old neighborhood anymore but you sure seem close. I hope you move, Resa. I hope you get out of there and go someplace nice, someplace where you deserve to be. Some people don’t have a problem living where you live but you’re too sensitive for that. I know that must seem weird, me calling you sensitive, but don’t forget I did watch you grow up for a long time. I do know things about you and one of the things I know is you tend to feel things more deeply than most people. You always did. You don’t like to talk about stuff much but you always could sense Mamma’s moods better than me or Luis ever could and you always took things to heart. I think that’s partly why Luis’ death affected you so much. I mean, I was sad, too, but not like you were and it made me feel like I was a cold jerk by comparison. Funny thing was, I never even saw you cry but I didn’t need to. But, the point I’m trying to make is, Resa, I want what’s best for you. I just want you to find what makes you happy. You deserve it. You’re still my baby sister and I love you and miss you, believe it or not. I think you should have what’s best in life and I don’t think you’re going to find it where you’re at. I know you may possibly have restrictions on account of your jail business, but, all I’m saying is if you can get out of where you are, I sure hope you think about doing it. Leaving our neighborhood and L.A. was about the best thing I’ve ever done, outside of marrying Rhala and having the kids. I’ll never regret getting out of that hellhole. I know it seemed cowardly at the time but it was so important to me. I was so afraid of getting caught up in all that shit and I think if I hadn’t gotten out of there I would have, too. I only wish I’d been able to take you and Luis and Mamma with me. I’m real, real sorry about that.
Anyway, I had better stop now or we won’t have anything to talk about and I really would like to talk with you, too. You sound good and that makes me happy. I’m very glad to have heard from you. I swear I just about had to sit down when I realized it was a letter from you that I was holding! I want to talk with you if you’re interested, maybe even get together, if that’s okay. I know a lot has happened between us and a lot has happened in both our lives, yours more than mine but we’re still family. At least, I think so. I miss you, Sis. I’m sorry I’ve been bad about keeping in touch but I hope you’ll let me try and get better at that. My phone number is (916) 555-4825. Feel free to call me. I miss you. Thanks for writing. I hope you write again or call. In the meantime, you take good care of yourself and, above all else, be happy.
She reread the letter twice more, then folded it up, replaced it in the envelope, and held it gently between her hands as she stared out over the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. She was moved on so many different levels by her brother’s words and felt herself on the verge of great emotion, thinking of Tarquin, how he had not rejected her but how instead he seemed willing, even eager, to embrace the idea of their reconciling after all these years of silence. And then she thought of the rest of her family, of all her family. She thought of her new niece and nephew, whom she did not know but whose mere picture managed to evoke a strong, visceral reaction that left her both pleased and hungering for more. She thought of Luis and how much he would have enjoyed being an uncle, perhaps even more than she could enjoy being an aunt. She thought of her own child, the little boy who was out there, somewhere, wrapped up, she prayed, in the embrace of a good and loving family. She even thought of her own mother, the woman who now appeared to be suffering the consequences of her actions, a thought that oddly did not bring an iota of satisfaction to Resa, the daughter who had spent her life reveling in her hatred of the woman she called Mama. And last, but never least, she thought of Jennifer, who was to her as close as family ever could hope to be.
She closed her eyes, feeling the wind more pronounced against her upturned face, and considered those two simple words, contemplated just when in her life she had truly been happy. At once, without effort or provocation, a succession of scenes and images played across her mind’s eye, moments when she had been lucky enough to feel joy, to know contentment and satisfaction. And she recognized immediately the single common denominator in each instance, the uniting principle of her source of pleasure was Jennifer Logan. With her Resa could honestly say she had experienced pure happiness on a variety of occasions. She thought of the time in the car, right before the rain, when she had been more relaxed in longer than she could recall, relaxed enough to lower her guard and to sing, to sing! Amazing. Before then, she hadn’t sung in a great while, hadn’t felt the urge to do something so capricious or carefree but once she spent time with Jennifer, the impulse had been too great to resist. Then there was the moment after the rainstorm when she had awakened to find herself in the younger woman’s unexpected embrace and had gazed down in heart-stopping awe at the angelic countenance of her companion. Resa’s heart ached even now, just thinking about how desperately she had wanted to stay with Jennifer, against all the odds... She remembered the time they peered through the telescope at the stars, with her having been more acutely aware of Jennifer’s presence by her side than the magnificence of the heavens above. And going to sleep the night before then waking up this morning with the subtle awareness of Jennifer beside her, always beside her…
Find what makes you happy, her brother had entreated. You deserve it…
But she did not need to do that, did not need to search for her happiness, did not need to try to find it. Her happiness had already been found. And in that moment as she sat atop the roof overlooking her neighborhood in all its familiarity and peculiarity, holding her brother’s letter with its earnestness and hope and, most wondrous of all, love, she knew with brilliant clarity, just exactly what she needed to do.
* * * *
Jennifer sighed and took a sip of her Diet Coke before setting it down on the small, wrought iron table beside her outdoor chaise and closing her eyes against the warmth of the late afternoon sun.
Enduring the trial of a parental visit was always a Herculean-esque feat for her, one that frequently left her drained to the point of absolute exhaustion. It wasn’t that she disliked her parents; she loved them both very much. But there was a smothering intrusiveness to their presence that unfailingly managed to transport her back to her adolescence in all its irrationality and reduce her otherwise patient disposition to one of barely contained petulance. And that was under the best of circumstances.
Fortunately, on this particular day, Barbara and Max Logan were only staying for a few short hours, merely taking time between their flight from Kansas to Japan in order to visit their Los Angeles bound daughter before dashing off on their latest month-long excursion across the Orient.
Traveling had become a way of life for the elder Logan’s. Ever since they came into Nona’s money and Mr. Logan semi-retired from his dentistry practice, the couple who had barely dipped their toes out of their home state suddenly could not be contained. They threw themselves into the art of being a tourist, seeing all the places they had wanted to see the whole of their lives but had never found either the time or the room in the budget to do so, not with four voracious children to manage on what had then been a limited income.
Barbara Logan’s brief flirtation with wanting to be a therapist had put a minor damper on their treks but, once she came to the fairly recent decision that such was not the life for her (which her daughter secretly considered to be a colossal understatement), they again had time to resume their jaunts with newfound vigor. And they always managed, at some juncture along the way, to find a way to see at least one of their children, all of whom were spread out over the country. This time it was Jennifer who received the honors.
The tour of the house, which they had not seen before, had taken about forty minutes, and that was twice as long as necessary due to Barbara spending most of the time either chatting incessantly or telling her daughter various means of potential improvement that could be made. And it occurred to Jennifer as they completed the little excursion, that there was absolutely no trace of Resa Gustavez’s presence to be found at any point along the way. The bed was made, the bathroom tidied, the remnants of their breakfast cleaned up and already on the dry cycle in the dishwasher. Even the scent of her, so heady and distinct, was gone, carried away by the cross-circulation of the open windows and a strong, mid-afternoon breeze. It was as if she had never been there.
Her parents, of course, hadn’t noticed a thing. Why should they? They could not miss what they did not know. Instead, Barbara and Max were caught up in the beauty of her two-storied home, delighting in the fact their daughter had bought it all on her own, something they had been unable to do when they were her young age. And Jennifer accepted their compliments, genuinely delighted by their approval, but there was a part of her that kept subconsciously searching for some trace that had been missed, some sign that Resa Gustavez’s presence had been more than a figment of her imagination, a product of her hope and need. But there was none to be found, nothing extraneous or tangible. Nothing other than what she carried within and, weakly, she wasn’t entirely confident that was enough.
After the tour, all three Logans retired to the back balcony, lounging under the sun and enjoying their drinks.
The back balcony was her favorite part of the house with the manner in which it traveled the width of the first floor, allowing access from the kitchen, the living room or the downstairs guest bedroom. Her first purchase after moving in had been outdoor deck furniture, pieces made of strong redwood and wrought iron, with black, all-weather cushions that would likely last long past when she’d grown tired of them and wanted something new. Though she had only owned the home a couple months, sitting out on the balcony at night had quickly grown into one of her favorite activities. Out here she could relax, soak up the air and feel free…at least when her parents weren’t also present.
Jennifer’s gaze briefly flicked over at her mother before she glanced away. Barbara Kane Logan had been an undeniably attractive girl in her day and had grown, over the years, into an undeniably attractive older woman. She had turned fifty-four on her last birthday but could have easily passed for a good decade younger by those who did not know her true age. Her radiant skin was barely lined and any trace of gray determinedly covered up by twice-monthly trips to the local stylist who kept her short hair close to the natural honey color of her youth.
Maxwell Logan, on the other hand, looked every bit of his fifty-six years, due, in no small part, to his decades long addiction to smoking, which he had only recently (and thankfully) managed to conquer. Her father was not handsome, not as a boy and not now as an older man, but he possessed a warmth and a charm and a twinkle in his deep blue eyes that made one forget that fact almost immediately. And he loved his wife with a sort of blind loyalty that was, often as not, entirely necessary as Barbara’s conduct was frequently somewhat less than impeccable.
They had met simply enough. One night while out at an Italian restaurant with some buddies, young Max Logan had taken a look at Barbara Kane seated across the room with a group of her female friends and decided then and there that he would marry her. Two years of resolute courtship later and he had done just that. Jennifer’s parents had been married for thirty-five years now, a fact that always managed to astound her when she would take the time to consider it, not because they didn’t love each other, but because it was so rare a feat in the confusion of modern times. Their commitment was something to be admired and she did, more than she ever thought possible since now she realized such a basic option was, sadly, no longer possible for her.
Barbara turned a wide smile to her only daughter. "Oh, darling, your house is extraordinary!" she said and Jennifer smiled in return.
"Thanks," she said with what she hoped was good cheer.
"It’s much nicer than those pictures you sent us of it. And quite spacious, despite the dark paneling in the living room. But you can easily lighten that up with either a new finish or a coat of paint."
"Actually, I like it," Jennifer said but, of course, her mother did not hear her, too caught up, as was her way, in the forward momentum of her own racing mind.
"Remind me and I’ll have Gerald give you a call next week for suggestions. You remember Gerald don’t you?"
"You’ve told me about him."
"He’s the one who redid the house a couple years ago. Wasn’t he wonderful, Max?" Her father didn’t bother to attempt to answer, experience having taught him better. "Just wonderful," her mother continued. "I mean, sure, he had a little drinking problem but if I had a son like his I’d be inclined to take a nip or two from time to time, too. Did I tell you about his son, David?"
"In great detail."
"He is just so handsome. I really did want you two to meet, until I found out of course."
"Mom, he’s a Scientologist, not a Satanist."
She waved her hand dismissively. "Six to one, half a dozen to the other if you ask me." Green eyes so like Jennifer’s own turned over the sweep of the canyon. "What a wonderful view. And so little smog today." She glanced back at her daughter. "Has that been getting better?"
"You know how clear the skies are back home. It’s so nice to not have to worry about the little things in life, like breathing and water quality and drive-by shootings."
Jennifer fought to contain her annoyance. If there was a common theme in their conversations over the years it was how much better, cleaner, nicer, happier Kansas was than Los Angeles. It was none-too-subtle attempt to persuade her daughter to come back to the Mid-West, to come back home where she would, no doubt, be safe. Jennifer had grown accustomed to these little asides but that did not lessen her irritation whenever they arose.
She shifted her jaw to one side. "Mom, the whole drive-by thing really isn’t--"
"Have you spoken with Erik lately?" her mother asked, blithely unaware she’d cut off her daughter.
Jennifer cringed, instantly filled with the typical flood of guilt at not being as good a sibling as she would like to be, or, more to the point, as her mother would like her to be. Barbara was forever reminding her daughter about birthdays and holidays and all sorts of opportunities missed or not fully realized, in hopes she would someday get magically better at keeping in contact with her family, and by ‘her family,’ her mother really meant her. Barbara, The Good. Barbara, the Long Suffering. Barbara, the holy Martyr to the Cause (and that ‘cause’ was, not surprisingly, Barbara, the Neglected). But Jennifer managed to do that.
Jennifer cleared her throat. "No. Something happen?" she asked, aware that such a question could be followed with "Yes, he has a terminal illness" just as easily as it could, "No, nothing at all."
Instead Barbara said, "He’s taking flying lessons, which means Cindy is about to have an aneurysm."
Jennifer brightened. "Hey, that’s great! Not about Cindy’s looming brain spasm, but about the flying. Erik’s always wanted to do that, ever since he was a kid."
"So did John Kennedy Junior, and you see where that got him."
"Mom, Erik’s a big boy and the most responsible person I know. If there’s a precaution, he’ll take it."
"Staying on the ground is the best precaution."
"So is never leaving the house and buying all your goods off the internet. That’s the best precaution there is. Then all Erik’d have to worry about is getting hit by a tornado."
"You’re missing the point."
"And so are you, oh Control Freak."
"I am not a control freak."
Jennifer looked over at her Dad.
"Leave me out of it," he said, sipping his soda. "I’m too old to go through a divorce."
She turned back at Barbara. "Mom, the first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem."
"Right now you’re my only problem. Now, are you going to let me finish my story?"
"There was a story?"
She ignored her daughter. "Erik has started taking flying lessons and Cindy’s upset. You know how she is about planes and all—"
Oh, yes, she did. They all did. From the beginning of their marriage, Erik’s wife had left no doubt about the extent of her "debilitating fear of flying," frequently crafting stories of legendary proportion in the family lore, especially as she tended to use her phobia as a convenient excuse for getting out of any Logan familial gathering that did not take place in her own home state. She fooled no one. Thus Jennifer found it all the more interesting that her brother should choose flying planes as a personal pursuit; there was something deeply Freudian in it all.
"—and they’re arguing quite a bit about it but no matter what, she says Erik won’t stop taking the lessons. He says it’s his only hobby and he needs the time to himself."
"Good," Jennifer said.
Barbara frowned in displeasure. "What do you mean, ‘good?’"
"Just that, for as long as he’s been with Cindy she’s pretty much called the shots in every aspect of their relationship and I’m glad to see he’s standing up for himself and for something that’s important to him. It’s about time."
Her mother made a face.
"You don’t agree I take it?"
"Honey, marriages are more complicated than who dominates and who doesn’t. They’re about mutual give-and-take and compromise."
"The key word being ‘mutual.’ Erik has always been the one to give up what makes him happy for Cindy’s sake and I don’t think it’s fair."
"Jenny, I don’t want to get into this with you."
"’Get into’ what, exactly?"
"Discussing marriage with you."
Jennifer frowned. "Discussing Erik’s marriage or the concept of marriage in general?"
"Because you don’t know what it’s like," she said with a sigh. "The one time you even got close to marriage you ran away."
Jennifer’s face hardened. "I did not run away. I called off what would have been a huge mistake."
"And marrying Curtis Eliot, one of the sweetest, kindest, most loyal boys in all the world would have been a mistake?"
"Yes, especially with that cocker spaniel description."
"Oh, please. I don’t know what you’re looking for, then. Prince Charming is not going to come riding up to you one day on his white horse to rescue you from danger."
"I assure you, I’m not looking for Prince Charming."
"Obviously, because you already met him and cast him aside."
"Did I tell you I saw him the other day?"
Jennifer shifted uncomfortably. "Uh, no."
"At the AMC Theater complex they just built, the one with stadium seating and 20 theaters." She gave her daughter a meaningful look. "He wasn’t with Sharon."
"Cheryl," Jennifer corrected absently.
"Whatever. The point is they weren’t together. And he asked about you."
She could feel the first pulse of a headache against her temples. "Because it’s the polite thing to do," she reasoned.
"I don’t think that’s it. You should have heard his tone and seen how interested he seemed."
"Mom, Curtis and Cheryl aren’t broken up. She’s in Madrid on business for a month; I spoke to him a couple weeks ago about it--"
"Oh, so you two still talk a lot?"
The headache was surging forward with every indication of taking a left turn into The Land of Migraine. "We’re still friends, Mom. Friends talk."
Barbara’s lips thinned. "You’re more than just friends, Jenny."
"Now, Barbara—" Max began.
"Oh, God, please tell me we’re not going down that road again…" A familiar wave of parental tension crested over her and she stood to move over to the edge of the balcony and lean against the railing.
"What road? We’re not going down any ‘road.’ We’re talking about a very significant moment, that’s all. That’s the healthy thing for families to do, after all. Talk. Share. Not keep things bottled inside where they fester."
Jennifer thought she might throw up but contained herself. "Fine," she said tightly. "I have no problem with talking. But can we please just pick a different subject other than Curtis?"
"Of course," Barbara said in her most reasonable tone, then turned around to fell her with an oh-so innocent, "So, are you seeing anyone?"
Jennifer’s breath caught in the back of her throat and stayed there, held captive by the involuntary constrictions that resulted from the sheer, unadulterated panic that ricocheted within. She felt in this single moment that she was nothing but the sum of all her fears, empty to anything other than acute anxiety and turmoil and she didn’t quite know what to say.
You don’t have to tell them now, she reminded herself quickly, but that thought only seemed to acerbate the problem, compound her guilt and cowardice.
Surprisingly enough, it was her father, perhaps sensing his daughter’s discomfort, who spoke up.
"Barbara, honey, let’s back off on the Spanish Inquisition for this little visit, okay?"
Jennifer’s body shook. She could not concentrate on what they were saying, her mind too thoroughly distracted.
You can just let the question slide by and no one will be the wiser. No one will know…
Barbara frowned. "What is everyone being so sensitive about all of a sudden? I asked a perfectly legitimate question."
Her stomach revolted. Except for me. I’ll know…I will know.
"You know Jenny Beth doesn’t like to talk about certain stuff. Now, let’s not browbeat her while we’re here is all I’m sayin’."
Why tell them now? You don’t have to. After all, what if she doesn’t come back?
"Okay, maybe you could tell me what I can talk about? What subjects are ‘safe.’" Barbara asked, making little quotation marks.
She might not come back…
"Food." Max patted his prodigious belly. "I don’t know bout you but I’m hungry as hell. Southwest’s a fine little airline but peanuts aren’t my idea of lunch."
"And God only knows what United’ll give on the flight over to Tokyo. Probably sushi."
…that’s not the point…
He shuddered. "Might as well be bait."
The point is, where is my faith?
"Jenny Beth, do you know of a place where we can get some good Tex Mex?"
Where is my faith?
For several seconds Jennifer didn’t move. She stood on her back balcony, which had only a couple hours before been the site of her late breakfast with her new lover, and realized then and there that she had to make a decision. She had to determine what it was that she believed in; in whom was she was willing to trust; where she was willing to place her faith. This moment was, in so many ways and on so many different levels, a test. One she placed upon herself without even realizing it and certainly without intending to do so. But now that it was before her, she knew she had to face up to the situation of her own making and live with the consequences, whatever they may prove to be.
She felt drunk. Dizzy. Disoriented. Her world newly shifting on its axis until everything was askew…
…and she slowly raised her head to look at her parents who watched her with mundane expectation mixed with curiosity. Before she knew it and in an act almost outside a conscious decision, she heard herself saying with more confidence than she truly possessed, "Yes."
Max smiled. "Good. Let’s go there."
She frowned at them for a moment, not really understanding the nature or their response until the essence of their conversation penetrated her awareness and she shook her head in frustration. "No, no."
Whereupon it was their turn to be confused. Barbara Logan looked at her only daughter in exasperation. "Why not?"
"No, not ‘no’ to-- I meant, yes—" Jennifer stopped, swallowed hard and valiantly fought to bring herself under control. She took in a deep, calming breath. "What I meant to say is…yes… I am…seeing someone."
Barbara Logan’s face lit up like a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Square and Jennifer felt a twinge of guilt, knowing that happiness was seconds away from being squelched.
"Oh, Jenny! That’s, well that’s just wonderful." She clasped her hands together. "What’s his name? How long have you been keeping him hidden from us? Oh, that is so like you to be all closed-mouth about something this important. Is it serious?"
"Yes. It’s-- very."
"Oh, goodness. Marriage?"
"Not in this country," she muttered, more for her own benefit.
"Why not? Is he foreign? Did you meet him on one of those tours for your book?"
She rubbed the tension across her brow. "Um…no."
"Come on, Jenny. Tell us how you two met."
Jennifer Logan had always been the sort of person who endeavored to study any potential problems from all angles, ponder the best possible way to address said issue and then attempt to make the appropriate move for a quick and intelligent resolution. But not today. No, definitely not today. Here and now, on what could conceivably be the most important conversation of her life, she was flying by the seat of her pants and praying to God for a less than catastrophic landing. It was a giddying sensation.
"Do you remember the book I wrote?" she asked.
"Of course," her mother nodded. "It was very successful."
"Did you ever, I don’t know, read it?"
Barbara had the grace to look embarrassed. "Well, honey, I tried, you know, but I only got about half way through. I’m just not interested in all that gang stuff and all that violence." She shuddered. "But I do have it and keep it on my bedside table to look at and be so proud of my little baby, the author."
"I read it," Max said quietly.
Jennifer glanced at her father, saw the somewhat guarded look that crossed his face and her gut reaction told her that he was closer to cluing in. She decided to help him along.
"It was a true story," she told him evenly. "All of that, in one form or another, happened to me. Including how I got shot."
"I don’t understand," Barbara said, looking between her husband and her daughter. "I thought you were shot during a robbery at that convent you were visiting for a project."
"That’s sort of how it happened. But I didn’t exactly tell you the whole story at the time."
"It was complicated. And I wasn’t quite…feeling up to it." She looked directly into her father’s eyes. "But, you should know that the writer in the book…was me. And how she got shot is the same way I got shot."
He stared at her for a long, meaningful moment, as if trying to gauge what it was exactly she was trying to tell him, the subtext of her words. "You were shot protectin’ your…friend?" he said slowly.
Her mother sat up straighter. "That’s crazy, Jenny. Why would you do something so foolish like that?"
"Uh, Barbara…" Max began, then let his words trail off as if uncertain what was appropriate.
Jennifer considered her mother for a long moment, considered what she was about to say, how she should say it and the fallout that was sure to follow. But then she thought, with an almost giddy sense of inevitability, Sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and told them with unequivocal simplicity, "Because I was in love with her."
There was no response.
"And I still am," she finished, then waited for the shit to hit the fan. And, as she suspected, she didn’t have long.
"Her?" Barbara repeated slowly.
A beat of silence, then,
"You mean…you mean you love her like a friend, don’t you?"
"That, too," Jennifer agreed patiently. "But, in this particular instance, that’s not the only way I love her."
Barbara Logan’s face paled. "Are you saying what-- Oh, Jesus, I need to go sit down."
She stood up and walked back into the house, leaving father and daughter alone in the resounding quiet of her wake.
Seconds ticked by -- one, two, three -- until whole minutes passed with her father not speaking and Jennifer at a total loss as to what she should say. She was aware only that she felt as if she were tethered to her body by the barest thread that could, at any moment, snap and send her reeling off into the atmosphere like a helium-filled balloon.
I told them, she marveled, in shock, in awe. I told them I’m in love with a woman…and I didn’t die of a heart attack or spontaneously combust…at least not yet.
It was liberating and, at the same time, left her feeling as if at any moment she would turn around to puke her guts up over the side of the balcony, her beloved balcony, until the contents spilled out over the dried grass and puny trees and dusty rocks below. However, she did no such thing. She held strong and glanced at her father.
He looked older all of a sudden, as if a magic wand had been waved over his gray head, with its little bald spot at the back like a monk’s tonsure, and the vitality that usually radiated off him so effortlessly, that which was his defining characteristic, was now gone. Vanished. Stolen.
And it was her fault. All her fault.
She took a breath to speak, though she hadn’t a clue what she could possibly say to alleviate the shock, but Max saved her by speaking first.
"Why don’t you go in and talk to her," her father said, his voice strained but still calm. "I’m gonna need a minute here."
Jennifer regarded him closely, looking for some sign as to what he might be feeling but, when she could detect none, accepted his right to process this revelation at his own pace and in his own way. She turned to open the sliding screen door and entered her house.
Standing inside for a moment, she felt as if she were surrounded by tension from every conceivable direction and she suddenly fought the fickle urge to laugh then cry then throw up then laugh again. Finally she just sighed.
"Well," she mused to herself. "That went well." But she was fully aware that the discussion was far from over. Indeed, it had only just begun.
She tried to imagine what her parents must be going through and felt a deep twinge of regret.
I’m probably handling this all kinds of wrong, she thought. I probably should have gone through therapy to figure out the best way to approach the situation and then called some sort of "Brady Bunch" family meeting where I announced in the gentlest of tones exactly what I’ve been feeling and how much I need their support and love and…
…they still would have freaked out.
She knew them too well, better than any therapist or counselor and she knew there was no sense in sugarcoating the situation. She just had to go for it and let the chips fall where they may.
Chip #1 was in the living room and, contrary to her declaration, had yet to sit down. Instead Barbara remained standing, one arm wrapped around her waist and the other hand gripping the back of a chair. Jennifer recognized that look of her mother’s, the pinched disapproval that seemed to draw all of her features forward to the center of her face, making her no long appear youthful and vivacious but cold, harsh and imperious. It was the sort of expression that, as a child, usually preceded a spanking and Jennifer cringed inwardly, wishing now more than ever that Resa was there with her, certain she would have been able to draw much-needed strength from the other woman as she stepped forward to engage in what could only be described as battle.
Cold green eyes met hers. "How long have you been waiting to spring this on me?" her mother demanded.
"Not long," she replied sincerely, leaning against the side of one of her favorite leather chairs. "And there was no ‘springing’ involved; it just happened."
"Just happened? I don’t understand, how long -- has this-- have you two-- been--"
"Since last night."
"Only one night? That’s all?" Her face looked hopeful and Jennifer could practically read her thoughts. Perhaps this was only a temporary thing, a phase.
But, it wasn’t.
"No, that’s not all," she said with more calm than she ever thought possible of herself. "It’s far more complicated than just one night."
"I don’t understand."
"We met a year and a half ago, the same week that I had my accident. But we lost touch until last night, when we found each other again and realized that we love each other. Well, I mean, I knew we loved each other the whole time we’ve been apart but she’s a little more hardheaded about certain things. But, the point is, we’re together now and it’s very, very serious."
"How can you know that?"
"Because I know how I feel."
"She’s a woman!"
"I’m aware," she answered drolly.
She heard her father enter the room from behind her and absently noted that he moved to stand beside his wife. His expression was difficult to read, but Jennifer knew enough to recognize he wasn’t exactly on the verge of throwing a party for her anytime soon. Barbara Logan barely acknowledged his presence, her anger too focused on her daughter to allow for much else to penetrate.
The next question out of her mother’s mouth was, "Have you…had sex with her?"
Jennifer came very close to laughing, but instead fixed her with a wry look. "Do you really want me to answer that?"
"Oh, Lord no! Oh! The thought…"
"Careful," she said dryly. "It’s contagious."
Her mother stiffened in indignation. "How dare you talk to me like that?"
"Like what?" Jennifer shot back hotly, feeling her anger start to get the best of her, despite her best efforts at composure.
"Like an angry adult displeased by her mother’s rejection?"
"I’m not rejecting you. I would never do that. I’m rejecting this, this thing you’ve become."
"It’s called an individual" she spat out. "You should try it sometime."
"Don’t patronize me like I’m some small-town hick. I have seen the world. I know all about how other people live."
Jennifer lost it and suddenly she couldn’t stop herself from saying things she had kept bottled within herself for years.
"That’s a load of crap, Mother, and you know it! You may have done some traveling lately but the only world you’ve seen is the one your guidebooks or tour groups have led you to. You go to all these places and take all those pictures but you retain nothing of the foreign culture. You’ve never been capable of a shred of empathy to lifestyles different from your PTA meetings or Junior League or the occasional wine-tasting event you throw with your Stepford Wives friends and even then you can’t bring yourself to venture out of the realm of Kendall-Jackson! News flash, Mom: Kendall-Jackson sucks!"
"Kendall-Jackson is an excellent American wine!"
"If that’s all you’ve ever tried. But there happen to be a whole host of other labels out there from all around the world with an amazing variety of tastes and as crazy as this may seem to you, some people actually prefer different labels to Kendall- Jackson! Some people raised on American Chardonnay try a Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pavillac and love it!"
"But some of those people used to be perfectly happy with American Chardonnay until their heads got swayed by that goddamn Rothschild…whatever!"
"But how happy were they, really? When deep down they were destined to love that damn Rothschild whatever but had to settle for the average American Chardonnay?"
The two women stared at each other in frothing anger and Max took advantage of the brief break to ask, "We’re not really talkin’ about wines here are we?"
"No!" both women answered at once.
"Didn’t think so," he said with a nod, and let them resume their argument.
"You’re doing all this to hurt me," her mother pouted.
"Mom, at the risk of being Copernicus to your world order, the universe does not revolve around you."
"Your sarcasm is not appreciated."
"Neither is your judgmental attitude. I know it pains you to consider that your perfect daughter just may be the source of gossip at the next bridge party but avoiding you some embarrassment—"
"More than some," she muttered.
"--is not reason enough to deny what really makes me happy."
"You don’t know what makes you happy yet," Barbara insisted. "You’re still too young."
"I’ll be twenty-five next week. You were married and had two kids by that time."
"The world was different then."
"Different does not necessarily equal better."
Barbara Logan crossed her arms, her stance one of pure resentment. "I knew I shouldn’t have let you come to Los Angeles!"
Jennifer shifted her jaw to one side. "You didn’t have a choice and I thank God I did come to Los Angeles. Otherwise I would never have met Resa."
"That’s her name?"
"Yes, Theresa Gustavez."
"Gustavez? You mean she’s Mexican, too?" Her face looked like she had just tasted a lemon.
"Unless you’re Mexican or Cuban and then, oddly enough, they’re completely different." Her upper lip curled in open disgust. "Jesus, Mom, when did you start channeling Rush Limbaugh?"
She threw her hands up in dismay. "I should have known. I should have seen the signs. First you chop off your hair, your long, beautiful hair and now you’re dressing like a man…"
"You bought me this blouse last Christmas," she said, not bothering to point out the similarity in their hairstyles.
"That’s beside the point. You’re changing." She sounded wounded and Jennifer felt a pang of remorse for her mother and a little embarrassment at her own out of control anger.
"Mom, I’m the same person I’ve always been. Just because I love Resa doesn’t mean I’m going to break out the Birkenstocks and flannel."
A stitch of time passed before Barbara asked warily, "Is she like that?"
Jennifer’s brows knitted in a frown. "Like what?"
"Birkenstocks and flannel."
Jennifer was on the verge of telling her mother to -- for the love of God! -- move beyond Clichés 101 when something made her stop and before she could assess what that ‘something’ might be, a calm, smoky, wonderfully familiar voice from the doorway answered,
All three Logans whipped their heads around to see the commanding figure of Resa Gustavez in the entryway between the foyer and the living room, looking indisputably sexy in her knee-length, clingy black dress as she gazed down upon them with ironic amusement lighting her eyes.
Jennifer’s heart leapt and her smile just about split her face as she took in the sight.
Ah, yes…Birkenstocks and flannel, indeed…
Parental Disclaimer: Just so I’m totally clear, Mr. and Mrs. Logan are not like my Mom and Dad, especially Barbara Logan. My (not-so) latent Catholic guilt compels me to make this point lest there be any question on the subject…J
For those interested, my e-mail addy is: firstname.lastname@example.org
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