This story began as a short, lighthearted entry to the Merpup Academy of Bards "Holiday Havoc" Challenge. However, the characters insisted that there was more to say, and proceeded to demand greater depth in their own representations, more shading, equal time for their pets, and more time at the beach, along with better working conditions and other perks. So I had no choice but to continue their story. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks to Rocky for Beta reading-but remaining errors are strictly my fault. Feedback of any sort is always welcome: email@example.com
This story began as a short, lighthearted entry to the Merpup Academy of Bards "Holiday Havoc" Challenge. However, the characters insisted that there was more to say, and proceeded to demand greater depth in their own representations, more shading, equal time for their pets, and more time at the beach, along with better working conditions and other perks. So I had no choice but to continue their story. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks to Rocky for Beta reading-but remaining errors are strictly my fault. Feedback of any sort is always welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
'Twas the Week Before Christmas
It was a dark and sucky night, to coin a phrase. The long-range forecast hadn't had a clue, but a Nor'Easter had blown up the coast overnight, and it was raining like the bejaysus out there. The puddles were almost ready to swallow my truck, and the rain was changing over to sleet or freezing rain, when I drove out to pick up Sue for our second date. Timing is everything, and I'd managed to meet a wonderful girl just in time to ask her out in the middle of a typhoon.
All cracks about U-hauls aside, I was really nervous. I'd just met her once in the bar, and we'd really hit it off-we'd almost talked the night through and I went to work the next day in a golden haze compounded equally of hope, lust, and exhaustion. We'd finally kissed, warmly, awkwardly, and parted reluctantly with promises of seeing each other the next weekend. It was all very romantic and wonderful, but I wasn't sure she would like me as well when she really got to know me.
Tonight I'd made an effort to clean up-not something that comes easy for me-because I was planning on taking her out to a nice restaurant, casual but with great food, and a place we could both actually talk and see each other. The storm was annoying, but I was determined to see her and damn the weather. I'd even vacuumed out all the dog hairs and fabreezed the seats in my truck the day before. I didn't know if she was allergic or not, but I wasn't taking any chances, and if she was, then Ephiny (so I named my cocker spaniel after a character in a TV show. So what… You want to make something of it?) and I were going to have to have a serious talk about the shedding. Or at least start investing in a little hairspray-Hey, would that work? Anyway, I'd been daydreaming about Sue being in my truck all week, and hoping she liked dogs.
Sue's a gorgeous woman, blonde hair, blue eyes, soft curves with just the right amount of muscle, and she fit so well against me when we were dancing last week-well, you get the picture. She was perfect, way too perfect for me. I knew that even if I managed not to mess things up there had to be a flaw; I just hoped I wasn't going to find it any time soon. She was smart and funny, and… And from what I could see, that one night anyway, she was also a pretty sharp dresser. So I was very surprised when Sue answered the door in a bathrobe, and a pretty ratty one at that. Even worse, she had clearly been crying, and she sniffled as she held the door open for me to come in out of the icy blast. And whatever else might have been on her mind, it was clear she'd forgotten our date, because although she did her best to hide it there was that faint moment of shocked surprise hidden under the welcoming smile.
I tried to joke my way out of it: "Hey, I didn't think I looked that bad."
"Sarah, you look perfect, I just-oh, my god."
The hand that had been clutching the bathrobe went to her mouth and it was all I could do to keep my focus on her face.
"It's okay. I understand," I said. "I can come back another time, or-"
But she had me by the hand and had dragged me into the living room, where she practically pushed me down on the couch. The lights were all on, and piles of clothes strewn haphazardly around a suitcase, while the dangling phone bleeped plaintively that it was off the hook, and if I'd like to make a call, I should hang up and try again, or if I needed help, dial the operator. I put it back on the cradle and asked what was wrong.
"Oh, Sarah. I'm sorry. I know I agreed to go out to dinner with you, it's just I've had some bad news, and-"
"Hey, it's alright. Just tell me what's wrong. Maybe I can help."
"Oh, sweetie, I don't think so. It's my grandmother. She's had a heart condition for years, but my sister looked in on her once a day, took her shopping-all that. She lives closer-And I'd try to go up there at least a couple of times a month."
I made an encouraging noise. 'Sweetie, eh? I like the sound of that.'
"But lately she's started to need more help, and she just can't manage on her own. My sister's been taking care of her, but we just found out Shirley's kids-she's got two boys-have the measles so they're in quarantine. She doesn't dare go near Gram. And Gram picked today to fall in the bathroom, so she can't be alone. One of the neighbors is there now, but she can't stay. I have to drive up there immediately. I'm so sorry. I was really looking forward to our date."
"Well, me too, Susan-but please, won't you let me drive you? It's nasty out, and there's so much flooding that little Honda of yours will drown before you get half a block."
"Oh, It's not really that bad. Is it?"
"It's pretty bad. They're predicting a couple more inches maybe turning to snow later-"
"But it's so far out of your way-I-"
"Not at all." What am I, nuts? I hate driving, particularly at night in an ice storm. But even more I hate the thought of her driving alone in an ice storm while she's upset. "And besides, I have a higher wheelbase. And 4-wheel drive. "
"Believe me it's no trouble at all. Er, where is it?"
At least she laughed. "It's on the North Shore and if you want to beg off that's fine, I really didn't want our date to be a family emergency."
"No, really, I insist on driving you. I'm serious about your car not being up to this downpour, and mine is. Have you eaten anything?"
"Well, no, but,"
"You get dressed and pack up, and I'll go get something." At that moment a very large orange cat strolled out of the bedroom, looked me over, and jumped into my lap. She landed her 15 pounds unerringly with the force of 30 on a sensitive area, and began kneading my thigh. 'Oh, god, she's a cat person and I'm a dog person. But at least we both like animals. Maybe we can work things out.' "If I can ever move again, that is."
"Oh, Hippo, get down!" Sue reached over to remove her cat, and just in time too, as the claws began to rip into my best jeans. "I'm sorry, I hope you don't mind animals."
"I love them. You, uh, named your cat 'Hippo'?"
"Actually it's short for Hyppolyta. You know, the queen of the Amazons? And my other cat is Melosa. She's around somewhere. I guess she must still be on the bed or something. Just give me a moment to get dressed, okay?"
"Sure, I'll wait." 'Another Xena fan. Yes!'
I looked around at her place while she was getting dressed. It was small, but the temporary clutter of packing aside, very neat: a row of windows set high in one wall; bookshelves below, not too many knick-knacks, just a few photos and a couple of candle holders. The furniture consisted of the sofa I was sitting on, a coffeetable, a reading lamp, a small TV and an armchair, with an area rug in the center. It was warm and light and uncomplicated, just like Sue. Yeah, that's what I thought at the time. But by the time we got to the complications it really didn't matter anymore. I wondered what she'd think of my place, assuming we ever got that far.
She was back in a few moments, dressed in jeans and a sweater, brushing out her still-damp blonde hair. She started to laugh, and looking over at the suitcase I saw the other cat, a calico monster, pretending to be asleep in the half-packed suitcase. She really did look like Melosa.
Sue gave a little higher pitch to her voice, and said, as if she were the cat, "Pack me." And then in her normal tone she said, "That's one of her favorite stupid pet tricks. She blends in w/ the dark bag, and all you can see are her eyes."
She was pretty cute (for a cat) I had to admit.
Sue was having second thoughts again. "Sarah, are you sure you want to do this? Drive all that way, I mean."
"Of course. Is your grandmother going to be alright? Did they take her to the hospital or anything?"
"Well, yes, she went to be checked in case she'd broken anything, and they did say she was fine. But she hates hospitals and insisted on coming home again as soon as the x-rays came back."
"I can understand that. My mother was the same way, I swore I'd never put her in a nursing home, and I never did."
"Is your mom living now?"
"No, I buried her last-well, about two years ago now."
"Oh, I'm so sorry."
"It's okay… I mean, I still miss her, but I'm okay. I think the worst of the grief is past now. But every once in a while something will remind me, and it hits me all over again. How about some food?"
"Oh, you know, I'm not really hungry. I think I just want to get up there. Are you famished?"
"No, not at all" 'I'm starving. I could eat a horse. Oh, god. Oh well.'
"I'm sorry. How about if I bring some apples and cheese for a snack, we can eat while we drive."
"Sure" 'Eat while I try to drive in this? There's a really bad idea. And an apple is fine for a snack, but no substitute for a meal. If I don't get something pretty substantial soon I'll be reduced to nothing more than a skeleton behind the wheel...'
She went into the kitchen to fix the cats' food while I lugged her now packed suitcase out to the truck. It's a good thing I have the extra cab; it's not big enough for the average 10 year old and even Eph hates it back there, but it's still a dry place to stow luggage, and on a night like tonight I really appreciated that.
I went back in just as she was coming out of the kitchen with a bag. I held her coat for her. She seemed surprised for some reason, but didn't say anything. I knew she'd broken up with someone fairly recently, but no details; whoever it was, I decided they were a jerk. I opened her door, handed her the grocery bag with the apples and went around to the driver's side. In just that short time I was already half soaked and she handed me a couple of paper napkins from the bag to dry off with. I started up the engine, turned up the heat, and we set off.
You know, for the drive from hell, it wasn't half as bad or as long as I thought it was going to be. I mean, there was only one accident ahead of us, and it only took them an hour to clear the wreckage off the icy roads, but all that time we talked and she kept feeding me snacks. Besides the apples she'd brought some smoked salmon, a couple of different cheeses, some jam, and a thermos of hot coffee. Black coffee, just the way I liked it-French Roast in fact, my favorite. And protein, which I need with my metabolism. You can't do heavy labor on carbs, to my way of thinking. Not that sitting in traffic was heavy labor.
So we were sitting there in the dark, with the crinkley sound of the sleet and the rhythm of the wipers under our conversation, and she took the opportunity to ask about my parents. I told her all about how my dad had disappeared, and my mom raised me, until she died from cancer. Sue was really good; she got me talking about the last months of mom's illness. I even shed a few tears, and she wiped them tenderly from my cheeks. I was almost surprised when traffic began to move again. And for once I didn't feel like someone had stomped on my feelings with cleats on when the story was done; usually I vow there's a reason I shut down when anyone even mentions family history. Maybe it helped that in addition to the salmon she'd brought along what she called "a few little treats"-half a dozen truffles for dessert. I have to admit, even better than protein, I like chocolate. The sweet dark chocolate and the strong bitter coffee-perfect, right? Yeah, she was perfect and I was anything but. I just wanted to hold on to my illusions a little longer. But then at last traffic began to move again, and we drove on. And on. I was almost beginning to wonder if we were headed for Canada before we got off the highway, but it wasn't that far, really.
So finally, after she gave me a whole slew of confusing directions, we arrived at a long dirt road, and I was more glad than ever that she wasn't trying to get here in that little heap of hers. But as we drove on and on through the puddles and bumps, with spooky looking trees and brush closing overhead, I suddenly got a little nervous. How well did I know this woman anyway? Where the hell were we going? And what was that? "Was that a-" I didn't even realize I'd spoken aloud until Sue answered my question.
"A graveyard. Yes. A lot of the old farms around here have their own private cemeteries. There are seven generations of my ancestors buried here, actually, although not all of them have stones."
"Why was that?"
"Some of them were strict Quakers; they didn't believe in ostentation."
"Not even just a simple stone?"
"Nope. Too flashy."
At last we pulled up between an old colonial and the barn in back. The house… well, it seemed to go on and on, and tilted in every direction, and not a single light was burning in the entire place, that I could see. The headlights picked out a few details: shingles were loose, the paint was peeling, and part of one of the gutters dangled into space like the downspout of Damocles. It had an air like it might collapse at any moment. Sue put a hand on my arm and I nearly jumped through the roof.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't meant to give you a scare."
"You didn't tell me your Gram lived in a haunted house," I said.
"Just wait and see," she said. "You'll love it. Really."
I just looked at the rotten pumpkin sitting slumped on the broad stoop where someone had obviously forgotten about it for about two months and nodded.
There was an ancient blue Volvo parked in the area nearest the house. Sue used my headlights to find her way to the door, and fumbled her way inside. It wasn't long before the rest of the lights came on, illuminating the parking area. Suddenly it was just a normal yard. I grabbed her bag and went on in.
I'm not sure what I expected, but I could never have imagined the interior of Susan's grandmother's kitchen. For one thing, it was so cluttered, it was the exact opposite of what I'd seen of Sue's personality. For another, it was like stepping back in time. First of all, there was a gigantic cast-iron range that looked like it belonged in the X-files, or something. I found out later, in all too intimate detail, that it was a wood stove, which could also burn either coal or peat. But at the moment all I could think of was some kind of medieval torture device, it had so many doors and shelves and knobs and handles sticking out in every direction. The sink was a single iron trough about 4 feet long, with an actual pump, the kind where you push a handle up and down, and I wouldn't have been surprised to find out that it worked, too. (I found out later. It did.) The kitchen table and chairs were normal enough, though, and there was a perfectly ordinary refrigerator.
There were plants everywhere, there were shelves of dishes, and stacks of magazines, and dishes of cat food, and… well, I was kind of overwhelmed by it all, because at the same time I was meeting Marge, the neighbor who was now leaving in her Volvo. She'd ferried Mrs. Saunders to the hospital and done her shopping, and now she was saying hello and goodbye simultaneously, thanking Sue for managing to get up there on such a nasty night.
And then Sue brought me into the living room to meet her gram, Mrs. Ethel Saunders, "Don't call me Ethel, call me Dodo, that was Sue's name for me when she was a little girl, much better than Ethel, sounds like a paint additive, doesn't it?"
Dodo was a small woman, even compared to Sue, but even in her wheel chair, tired out from a day at the hospital, you could see she had spirit. Her arms flailing under the orange afghan that was draped over her shoulders, she directed us all around her living room, showing off knick-knacks and telling stories that led to other stories and still more stories until they had completely lost their way.
I was beginning to hit the wall-the tired beyond belief wall-and worrying about Eph, who was home alone and wondering what was up with her usual nighttime circumnavigation of the block, I was sure. It wasn't like I had dates so often she was used to me getting home late, and if I broke the rules I knew I would find the garbage tipped out on the kitchen floor when I got home. I hadn't figured on it taking so long to drive up here, and I knew it was going to be even longer going home. Sue must have realized I was getting anxious about something, because she interrupted her Gram's flow and asked if I was hungry, or if I needed something. I asked for the phone so I could call Jane, one of my co-workers who also has a dog, and traded care with me when we needed to.
"You have a dog?" I could see the concern on Sue's face, but it was hard to tell what kind it was-was it the 'oh my god, we will never be able to cohabitate because of our pets' concern, or the 'oh my god, you left you pet home alone' kind of concern? I couldn't decide. Technically speaking she had left her pets alone too, but they had a special food and water dispenser. And they had each other. Ephiny was home by herself, pining for the rest of her pack: me.
So I called Jane-it turned out the phone was a perfectly regular cordless variety, not something I had to crank. I asked her if she could just go visit Eph and walk her and I'd be home later that night.
"You aren't planning on driving home in this!" I got it loud in stereo, Jane in my left ear, Sue in my right. Jane went on to explain that the rain was turning to ice and they were declaring a state of emergency, calling for everyone to stay home while they tried to salt and clear the roads. She reassured me that she would go get Eph and keep her at her own house with her dog, Artemis, until I got back.
"Don't worry, Hon, Artie and Eph will have will have a ball. You just have a fine old time with your new little girlfriend."
I had already started to blush uncontrollably when I said "But we're-I'm not-" but all she did was laugh, so I gave it up, thanked her, and hung up.
"Will your friend have to go far to pick up your dog?" Sue asked, tactfully ignoring my embarrassment.
"Nah. Jane lives in the same complex. Even if it's a blizzard all she has to do is cross a driveway. I guess it's worse out there than I realized."
"Sarah, you can't drive back this late in this weather, you must stay the night," Sue was insisting. "There's plenty of room here-lots of rooms. Lots and lots of them. You can pick whichever one you want. I know it's inconvenient-I'm so sorry to bring you all the way up here. I don't know what I was thinking."
"You were thinking about your Gram. Nothing wrong with that. But don't worry, I have a truck, I'll be fine."
"Please don't-will you let me feed you at least?" Sue had a way of side- stepping an argument, as I was beginning to discover.
"You didn't feed me before?"
"No-well, not really. I'm sure there's something more substantial in the fridge-can I make you a sandwich, at least?"
In no time flat I was back in the living room, sitting opposite Dodo in an armchair next to the wood stove, with a plate of roast beef sandwiches, pickles, chips, a large glass of milk and an extra-giant size brownie for dessert. Between the heat, the food, and the lateness of the hour I could have fallen asleep right there. I guess I must have dozed off because I didn't remember saying goodnight to Gram, when I realized there was an adorable blonde in my lap, stroking my face.
"Are you asleep?" she asked.
"Are you awake?"
"You'll be much more comfortable in a bed, you know."
The hands moved around to scratch my scalp and then slid down my arms, rubbing my shoulders and then ending with her hand in mine, pulling me to my feet. I really was very tired, and Sue didn't press me for anything, she led me up a flight of stairs, around a turn, down two steps, through a bathroom, along a corridor, and into a bedroom with a huge Victorian carved mahogany bed. It was rather chilly in the room, but the bed was covered with an eiderdown quilt and a large flannel nightshirt was laid out on the pillow. There was also a large marble-topped dresser, and candles burning on the mantle. I almost looked around for Vincent Price, but I was so tired by then that it was all I could do to take my boots off before I tumbled into bed. I didn't even remember Sue covering me up with the quilt, although I think there was a goodnight kiss in there somewhere.
When I woke up, it was still pitch black. I usually wake up real early for work, but the late hours of the night before left me groggy. Sue was there with a flashlight, one icy hand shaking my shoulder, while her teeth chattered in the background.
"What's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost," I said.
"My room's right under the attic. I think there's r-I think there's something up there."
"Probably just a squirrel," I mumbled, having crawled up a lot of roofs to fix the damage they did. I wasn't really awake yet. "Can it wait for morning?"
"I just don't want them-it-in my room."
"Oh. Want to snuggle?"
For answer I got a thoroughly chilled woman wiggling under my covers, and wrapping herself around me. Cold and all she felt good, and fit just right. I could feel her start to warm up and we went back to sleep.
When I woke again, it was still early but much lighter, with that kind of strange reflected light that comes from snow. Sue was still sound asleep, drooling on my shoulder, and I couldn't feel my arm. I pulled myself free gradually and ventured out into the cold. And I do mean cold. If the room had been a bit chilly before it was freezing now; I could see my breath. Taking my clothes with me I staggered out into the maze, and eventually found the bathroom; it was just as old-fashioned as the rest of the house. There was a claw-footed tub and a big old cast iron steam radiator, which didn't seem to be giving out much heat. By the time I'd washed up in icy water and gotten dressed I was wide-awake and ready for breakfast, so I wandered downstairs.
I only got lost twice looking for the kitchen, finding Dodo's room by accident on the way. She was awake and glad of a helping hand to get up and to the bathroom. She only used the wheel chair when she was tired, but she tired easily. I asked if they'd taken blood tests the day before, and she said yes, she'd fed the confounded vampires at the lab, thank you very much, and to skedaddle. I went to make us some coffee and toast, which I brought back on a tray. She did need a little help getting back into bed, but she was so light I could lift her up easily. It reminded me of Mom, but Dodo didn't give me a chance to feel sorry for myself, before I knew what was happening we were playing a cutthroat game of Chinese checkers while we finished our second cups of coffee.
In the midst of which a very groggy Sue appeared in the doorway. "You two having a party without me?" she asked.
"Yes indeed," Dodo replied. "Sue dear. I think the power is out again. You'll need to build fires in the kitchen and the parlor stove to keep the pipes from freezing."
"Oh, great," Sue grumbled. I could tell she was not a morning person. I offered to help. In short order I was out in the barn splitting kindling while she got some coffee. Then she made the fires and started breakfast. Sue was actually pretty good at cooking on a woodstove, and after I'd been fortified with bacon and eggs and homemade cornbread I felt more like taking on the world myself. It was still snowing. We shoveled, we hauled wood, we pumped water. We made a snowman. I asked about the rotten pumpkin, now frozen into place like a pathetic doorstop, and found out it was left there so the birds could have a chance at the seeds. It looked to me like something else had been gnawing on it, but I didn't want to say anything, so I kept quiet.
Lunch was soup and more of those sandwiches, and it somehow had been tacitly arranged that I was spending the weekend. I'm not sure how she did it, but Sue could just get in under my guard. So I just relaxed and gave in gracefully. After lunch Dodo had a little rest, and Sue and I were lounging around the living room. She was giving me some background on the furnishings, some of which Gramps had brought back from trips all over the world-there was a beautiful Moroccan rug, for example, which was still in pretty good shape if it weren't for the gray lumps of embedded gum from her nephews.
"What a shame," Sue was saying. "Do you suppose rug shampoo would loosen them?"
I had a brief flashback to one of my less pleasant jobs, and said, "dry ice"
"Dry ice. You put it on the gum and when it freezes, it cracks, and you can vacuum it up."
"How do you know this?"
"One of my jobs used to be for a cleaner. In fact that's how I got into doing carpentry-we were doing some post-construction work and I thought what the other guys were doing looked a lot more interesting."
"Sarah, you seem to be good at everything."
Uhoh. "Er-not really. Just restless, I guess. Can't stick to anything very long." It was true, but she was looking at me like she was wondering if I was warning her off from getting too attached, and I realized what I said. Damn. I didn't mean her. But this always happens, I never seem to say what I do mean. Rats.
"… So what I was wondering was, how are you with rats?"
I realized I'd missed something. "What?"
"Rats. I'm… well, I'm really afraid of them, and I thought I heard something scurrying around in the attic last night. Do you think you could go and see?"
I'm not good with rats. I hate them, in fact. "Uh, sure. No problem." What are you doing, you idiot? "Just show me where it is." Oh, Brother. Here we go.
So after arming myself with a broomstick and a flashlight, we set out for the attic.
I was glad Sue stayed with me, because I really needed a native guide to find the place-there was just an impossibly narrow door in the middle of one wall on an upper floor. If I hadn't been shown the latch I think I'd have just assumed it was a fault in the paneling. Opened, it revealed an equally narrow and proportionately steep set of steps. I could hardly fit my foot on a tread even sideways. So I edged up the stairs, crablike, with Sue agitating below me.
"What is it?" she asked. "Is it rats? Is it bats? What's up there?"
She got worried when I didn't say anything, but I couldn't find my voice at first. "Er-I-Um-There's a few, uh, it looks like-hanged colonists?" I squeaked, waving my broomstick at a mass of clothing topped by a tricorn hat that jutted out at a 45 degree in a dark corner to my left.
"WHAT? Don't be silly, let me look."
She barged right past me and started to laugh. "Oh, silly, those are just Gran's
costumes from the Plimouth Plantation events. She used to volunteer. They're a little musty, but nothing to worry about." Disappearing around what looked like a brick wall, Sue vanished, but I could hear her mumbling about something neat. So I climbed up the rest of the way and edged around the chimney, where, being the tallest, I got a face-full of cobwebs.
"Uh. Nothing. Good thing I'm not afraid of spiders."
"Oh. Sorry. I can't believe I was so scared, and now there's nothing up here but old clothes and a gray piñata.
"This thing. Look."
"That's no piñata, that's a hornet's nest-don't-"
It was a good thing the attic was freezing, that's all I can say. The stinging insects had gone to sleep for the winter. Oh, and open eves have their problems. I managed to dispose of the nest without injury, I found the hole where the squirrels (yep, it was squirrels, not bats) had been getting in and tinned it over with a flattened number ten can, formerly full of peeled tomatoes.
By then it was almost time for dinner, I was filthy, and there was, of course, no hot water. Sue made me a big cup of the best hot chocolate I'd ever drunk, and promised me that I could wash as soon as the spaghetti sauce was started, since I'd insisted I needed the can from the tomatoes.
I didn't realize it was going to be in a galvanized tub-the kind I associate with ice and beer at a barbecue-and right in the middle of the kitchen. It was the warmest place, though, and I guess if I was going to be stuck in a place without power it might as well be one that remembered when electricity was just a spectator sport for kite-flying locksmiths.
The rest of the weekend was a lot less eventful. We played in the snow, played board games with Dodo, and ate enormous meals. I had a great time, and I'd gotten to prove my handiness to Sue and her Gram, at least. I hated to go home, but by the time the roads and weather cleared it was already Monday and I needed to get in a few more hours at the job.
Sue was quiet when she handed me some sandwiches 'for the road' although I really hoped I'd be back before lunchtime. I wasn't sure what was up. She didn't seem to want to say goodbye, which I figured was a good thing, at least she wasn't fed up with me.
At last she blurted out, "So what are you doing for Christmas?"
"Um. Well, we usually exchange a few gifts at work on Christmas Eve, and then I take the day off and do laundry, stuff like that."
"I know we haven't known each other very long, and Christmas gets to be kinda, well, charged up with heavy family stuff, but if you'd like to spend that holiday here with us, Gram and I would love to have you. We're not going to make a big thing out of it, since Shirl and the kids will still be in quarantine, just a few greens on the mantle and probably too much food-but I'd love to see you. And I promise not to make you work so hard."
No, no, no, I'm strictly a 'bah humbug' kinda gal. No festivities! "That's okay. I like fixing things. Uh, sure. I guess the laundry could wait. What should I do about presents, though?"
"Honey, you've already done enough hard work for a big gift certificate. How about you just get Gram a card? We mostly just give each other little stocking gifts, and I buy whatever the latest toys are for her to give the kids."
"Oh, you know, paper clips, candy bars-just little things."
I mulled over the family that gave itself paperclips for Christmas. Maybe it was some kind of strange Yankee thing. But I agreed to return at the end of the week.
All the comments about stocking gifts aside, I wanted to make something special for Sue, at least. I'd noticed she liked candles when I was at her apartment, so I decided to turn a couple of wooden candleholders out of some old apple wood I'd been saving-the grain had a lovely pattern to it. I set up the jig so I could turn two from the same log. When I liked the shape and the grain I cut them in the center, sanded and finished them. I got some metal caps to hold the candles themselves, and set them in the holes I'd drilled out. I spent a few hours agonizing about what to get Dodo, but as I was browsing through the thrift shop looking for a new old sweatshirt to cut up for work, I noticed a scrabble game. I figured it would be a change from Chinese Checkers. Plus, I might have a better chance of winning. The old girl had beaten my butt, every time.
So suitably armed with what I hoped were the right gifts, I set out for the Saunders family home on Christmas Eve after the party at work. I didn't want to make a big deal out of it-only Jane knew, since she was taking my dog again.
The weather had warmed up and the snow had vanished, so it was looking to be a gray Christmas, at least as far as weather was concerned. But for holiday cheer it sure beat out any year since I'd been a child. It was late when I arrived, so Sue just showed me to my room and told me to sleep as long as I wanted. We had a very civilized breakfast and then exchanged gifts. I was very happy with my gift choices, and really surprised to receive a new toolbelt from Sue, and an antique plane from her Gram. I was glad I hadn't taken her strictly at her word, and they seemed to really like my gifts to them.
We made eggnog and for dinner Sue roasted a goose, and Dodo told stories about her father hunting and fishing for their dinners back in the 30's. I'm not sure I'd want to live on sea ducks after all the jokes about recipes calling for bricks and all, but I'm sure Sue could have figured out a way to make them tasty. In spite of her protestations, she was a great cook. True to her word on the decorations, however, there were minimal green things. A wreath outside, one string of lights over the window, some pine boughs on the mantle-and with all the clutter there wasn't much room for those things, let alone a tree. But after we'd done the dishes and Dodo had gone to bed Sue asked if I'd mind hanging up one more piece of decoration.
"Sure," I said, a little puzzled, "but what-?"
She pulled a sprig of mistletoe out from behind her back and grinned. Then she held it up over our heads, and said: "Um. Trick or treat?"
I just said "yeah," and kissed her.
Chapter 2 (Sue)
I met her just before Christmas. In a bar, for god's sake. I can't believe I even went to the bar in the first place, it's not really my scene. Bars in general, I mean-but I figured I had to make the concession for a gay bar, just to get away from myself for a minute. I was sick of sitting home moping over Paula's departure; I just had to get out, and BE out, before I died of hypocrisy. I never expected to actually meet someone I could talk to there, let alone someone I'd feel comfortable dancing with, and inviting over.
Well, technically she asked me out and I let her come to the house to pick me up, but our first date turned out to be a weekend with my grandmother, in the midst of a crisis. Sarah just leaped in to help like she'd known me all my life. I don't know why I trusted her, but I just did-and then she was so cute when we got to Gram's house-I could tell she was scared and trying not to let on. For some reason it made me feel better that she was just as nervous as I was. Then she and Gram took to each other instantly; they were obviously kindred spirits. So I figured I had nothing to lose by inviting her up there for Christmas.
Despite all the chaos the week before we had a fine holiday with my Gram. Although we hadn't taken our relationship beyond kissing, we were really hitting it off well when just before New Years Gram caught pneumonia, and all plans had to be put on hold. She got better eventually and came home, but that meant I took a longer leave from work, and was miles away from Sarah. We'd been trying to see each other for almost six weeks, but between my nursing Gram and some crisis at her work-which was practically at the other end of the state it seemed-we hadn't managed to see each other again.
The trouble was, we were coming up on my least favorite fake holiday. I hate Valentines Day. Even in Kindergarten, I never was much on making those little crayon hearts and after that last Valentines Day with Paula I never wanted the calendar to say 'Feb 14' ever again. Not a realistic expectation, but I really hoped Sarah wasn't going to want to do anything "romantic" in a forced-by-the-calendar sort of way.
Don't get me wrong, I hoped we weren't going to just fizzle out, but if she did "a Paula" and showed up at my door with flowers and excuses I might just have to pop her one. I know. I know Sarah's different, and I shouldn't borrow trouble that hasn't happened yet, just count my blessings. But I sure can pick 'em, so I have to wonder.
Still, holiday aside, I was hoping to speak to Sarah at some point, and I was getting tired of playing phone tag with the machine. So by the second week of February I made a concerted effort to reach her. Finally she answered the phone. I wasn't sure it was her at first, because she sounded so awful I could hardly recognize her voice.
"Hello? Sarah?" I said.
"Sarah? Is that you? What's wrong?"
"Got the flu. Went to my lungs."
At least I think that's what she said. She was coughing badly, too. I asked if she needed anything, offered to help, but she kept saying she was fine. I knew she wasn't fine, but if she never asked for help, well… and I didn't want to intrude, but still.
I called the next day, and the day after that, but all I got was the machine. Finally Valentines Day dawned, cool weather, but bright, without snow. Sarah hadn't called me back, and I still got the machine. It wasn't that I was expecting a big profession of love or anything, but I was beginning to get a little worried. I was still on leave from work, even though Shirley had returned to looking after Gram now that the boys were better. So I decided to just go over there. I'd never been to Sarah's apartment, though she'd told me about it in general terms. I knew vaguely where it was, so with the help of the phone book I got an address, and before I could think about it too hard I was driving over there. I knew she was probably fine and back at work, but I just needed to see.
When I got there her truck was still in the driveway, looking like it hadn't moved in a long time. There was still an icy patch underneath from the last snow, and the bed was empty except for a deflated football in a bed of leaves. I looked around for a door, but I wasn't sure where to go-there was a big garage door with a smaller door next to it, both covered in grime. Finally I settled for banging on the smaller door. Although I was pretty sure she'd said she lived above the garage, I couldn't see any steps or other way up to it.
There wasn't any answer, and I was thinking about calling the whole thing off when I found my hand on the knob. The door opened easily. And there I was in Sarah's domain. The whole downstairs part of a two-car garage was filled with tools. There was a workbench with a half-finished project on it-a picture of a
Cornucopia filled with colored leaves sat propped up at the back of the bench, and a half-carved block of wood was obviously in the process of becoming the Cornucopia. There was no sign that Sarah was actually working, though, despite the chisel resting on the bench. I could see a set of steps over to my left, though, and they seemed to lead to the living quarters upstairs. I felt like a trespasser, but the door was unlocked and no dog came barking to warn me off. I figured she was just at work, maybe getting rides with someone, when I heard this quavery voice call out "who's there?" So I made my way around some kind of saw and hollered up from the foot of the steps.
There was a door above my head, level with the floor above, and it slowly opened to reveal a very pale Sarah standing at the top. She was wearing black jeans and a black tee shirt, looking like a melancholy refugee from a modern version of Hamlet.
"What are you doing here?" she coughed out.
"I got concerned. Just wanted to make sure you were okay, see if you needed something-you know, any shopping or anything. Are you alright?"
"No." she said, and sat down on the top step still coughing and looking like a doll with the half the stuffing knocked out of her. I went up and put my hand on her forehead, which was burning up.
"Sweetie, you are very sick. Have you been to the doctor?"
"No, I hate doctors. All they do is tell you to take 2 aspirin and drink plenty of fluids, and I can do that by myself, without paying them 75 bucks." She took up coughing again.
"Come on, you need to be back in bed." I pulled her up by her belt buckle and had to practically haul her into the apartment.
I looked around for a bed, but all I saw was an old brown couch with a pillow and a blanket over it. I let her fall back on it, wrapped her up and went to look for some juice or tea or something to soothe her throat. Just about the only thing in the tiny fridge was a nearly empty jug of cider; I gave it one sniff before pitching the whole thing. I looked around some more, but with the exception of dog food, dog biscuits, and dog treats, her cupboards were pretty bare. I could tell by the fancy coffee maker and the pathetic hot plate that she didn't do much real cooking. Not that I'd come planning to make a feast or anything. But she'd clearly been alone and sick for too long. I put some water on to boil and took out the nearly desiccated lemon I'd found in the veggie bin, while I set an ancient jar with a little residue of crystallized honey in another pan of hot water to soften.
While I was waiting for the electric coils to do their work I went back to Sarah.
I looked around at the dog-hair-coated room, noting how spare it was. Almost the only decoration on one wall was the plane Gram had given her for Christmas.
"Sweetie, I know your Mom is gone, but do you have any other family?" Although I'd told my self I wasn't going to, I started picking up the spent Kleenexes.
"Just looking for reinforcements. I think I need some help talking you into going to a doctor. You're really sick, you turkey. Don't you know that?"
"Well, yeah. But I decided not to go in to work. And Eph's visiting Artie, so I don't have to go out in the cold to walk her."
"Ephiny, my cocker spaniel. She likes to play with Artemis, Jane's Wiemareiner."
She started to cough again and I decided to stop making her talk and concentrated on the Kleenex harvest. At some point she'd stopped or run out and just shifted over to paper towels.
When the water boiled I made a cup of hot lemon water with honey and brought it over to her.
She woke up enough to ask, "Will this stop the parade of hammers going in my skull?"
"No, honey, but it might shift over to something a little softer, like a hay ride.
"Heh. Hay rides in my head. Well, it would be an improvement over what's there now. Thanks for taking care of me. I'm sorry I'm so out of it."
"That's okay. I'm going out to get you a few groceries, okay?"
"You don't need to do that."
I could hardly believe how different this Valentines Day was from the last one. From Paula's demands for perfection and practically beating me up over the alignment of the napkins; I had gone to the other extreme: a woman I could hardly persuade to let me do the most basic, drastically needed things. I put my hand on her damp forehead and stroked her greasy hair.
"I want to, all right? And you need them, so don't argue with me."
She sighed and went to sleep.
When I got back she was coughing again. Deep, racking, lung tearing coughs. I put the groceries away quickly, and stood over her.
"Get up. Now. I'm taking you to the emergency room."
"Don't argue with me. You're going."
Well, she went. Folding her into my little car was amusing. And we had a long wait at the emergency room, but she seemed relieved, actually, that we'd gone there. We sat in the waiting room and talked about Christmas.
"I can't believe I thought your grandmother had Pilgrims hanging in her attic. And what a place! Has your family been living there since colonial times?"
"Not quite. We are descended from the Mayflower though."
"Really? I guess that figures, though."
"I'm descended from the Indians. I'm one eighth Wampanoag."
Just then they finally called for Sarah, and I waited another hour before she reappeared, looking a lot more like herself.
"So how'd you do?"
"I have bronchitis, and I was dehydrated. They gave me some intravenous fluids and I have to go get this prescription filled. Otherwise, peachy."
We went to the pharmacy on the way home, and I helped her up the steps. She took a pill and went back to sleep while I made her some chicken soup. She woke up long enough to have a little before I went back home myself. She apologized again for being sick.
"No, it's okay, really. Though it does make two years in a row."
"Being at the emergency room on Valentines Day. Last year-" I told her about Paula's hissy fit and getting my foot cut on the broken glass, going in to have stitches. She was suitably outraged. And slightly appalled she hadn't realized what day it was, although she was in no shape to do much of anything at all. It wasn't the perfect romantic moment, but I was glad she'd let me take care of her a little, and it did answer one question: even under adverse circumstances I was still definitely attracted to her.
Chapter 3 (Sarah)
Everything is Relative
Once I was back on my feet I had the sense to be really embarrassed at my lack of response to Sue's many calls when I was sick. I was also really grateful that she'd barged in and taken me to the emergency room, because I felt so much better once the antibiotics kicked in. She was right, I was acting like a turkey. She didn't seem to hold it against me however, and we were talking on the phone often, and seeing each other every weekend that we could. The trouble was, she'd gone back to work, and had papers to grade, while I was working at a job site so far away I didn't even come home during the week. Not exactly the best conditions to paint the town red. Eph and I were living in the mostly-finished cottage, while the addition on the main house was still getting framed in, long behind schedule because of the bad weather.
At last we caught a break and Charlotte, my boss, hired in a few extra workers, so we went at it, 24/7, like a bunch of god-damned Elves, hoping to get the job done before the owners got back from Switzerland. The good thing about that was it helped me catch up on some bills; the bad thing was I didn't really have time for a relationship. I was hoping Sue would forgive me if I really did spend some time with her when the job was over. So we made plans to get together during school vacation. Of course the job still wasn't done, but I'd asked for time off so much in advance, and put in to much overtime Char couldn't really say no.
I'd debated getting reservations and going to some B&B somewhere, but I wasn't sure we were ready to be that intimate-sure, every time we got together we had a good time, but the times were so far between it felt like I had to get to know her all over again each time. So I just figured we'd start back at dinner, meet at her place and go from there. I hadn't even really had time to get nervous yet, when the phone rang. It was Sue, apologizing because she had to go up to her Gram's again. It seemed that her grandmother was needing more help than Shirley could give, and the two kids with their loud boisterous energy were too much for Dodo. Plus Shirley had a new job, and couldn't get as much time off.
I looked around at my apartment that hadn't seen me more than six nights in as many weeks, and the thought of spending the next week by myself with nothing to do but chase dust bunnies was more than I could stand. I could go back to work I guess, but I needed a break too. I asked Sue if she'd like company. She was a bit surprised. She said yes, but she wanted to drive up by herself and get the lay of the land and to just give her a call tomorrow to see how things were.
As it turned out I didn't have to wait that long. Around 11 the phone rang, and it was a tearful Sue needing to vent real bad. Dodo wasn't doing well at all, and Sue didn't have much confidence in her family Doctor. Apparently he wasn't one of the ornaments of his profession. I talked Sue down, and asked if she wanted me to postpone. There was a pause.
"I'd really like you here," she said. "But I understand if you can't do any more of this."
"It's different for me, hon. Dodo's not my mother figure the way she is yours. And maybe I can help around the house."
"Oh, it's not fair of us to ask you to do that. But even a few games of Chinese Checkers will help take Gram's mind off all the things she's not strong enough to do any more."
"All right, kiddo, I'll be there with bells on. Can I bring you anything? Coffee? Chocolate? Lump of coal for the stove?"
"Well, chocolate is always welcome, but we really don't need anything."
The next morning I swung by the pharmacy and looked over the selection of get-well cards. I bought half a dozen of the silliest ones-you know the ones I mean, almost verging on pornographic, but mostly just suggestive. I planned to give them to Dodo at intervals to cheer her up. I looked at the chocolate bunny supply and realized that Easter was the commercial holiday du jour. Well, chocolate in bunny form couldn't hurt, so I got a bag-full, and then I added a few purple peeps for good measure. I wandered around the kids' section thinking maybe I should bring something for Sue's nephews, but decided against trying to buy toys for kids I'd never met. I did pick out a couple of mildly scented candles, though. The house had a mustiness about it, and sickness has an odor too. Anything to cut through that was bound to be help. I figured to be there by lunch time, but it took a while to get Eph settled down at Jane's, so I ended up eating a sandwich at home before I finally hit the road.
Of course I got lost. Even though I'd made my way up there twice before, once in the dark with Sue and the following week by myself, everything looked so different in the different season I couldn't find the turnoff. Eventually I parked at a gas station and Sue had to come rescue me. It was completely mortifying, since I wanted to be the one to rescue her, but when she actually arrived I was just so happy to see her it didn't seem to matter.
Anyway, the first thing I did when I got there was to go in to say hello to Dodo. She had shrunk, in the months since I'd seen her last. I could see her vitality slipping away, and it reminded me so much of my mother's last illness I turned on my heel and marched right back into the kitchen, where I burst into tears. That set Sue off, and the 2 of us had a quiet but very deep cry on each other. I've learned that you never really run out of tears, but eventually there is a daily limit to how much salt water a body can produce. When I started hiccuping, Sue let go and got me a glass of water, pushing me down into a chair at the kitchen table.
Before either of us was quite ourselves again there was a knock at the door, and a visiting nurse arrived to check on Gram. Sue had been busy fighting the medical red tape and gotten results. The nurse was really good-cheered Gram up, calmed Sue down, and gave us a list of things we needed to get to make her more comfortable. I took in some tea while Sue got dinner, and we all ate in front of the fireplace, although it was a bit warm for the stove to be going. Then I helped Dodo to her room, pulled off her stockings and got her into bed.
When I came back Sue was washing dishes.
"How are you holding up?" I asked.
"I'm-I'm exhausted," she admitted, changing what she'd been about to say for the truth. "It's… she wakes up in the middle of the night and gets restless. I don't dare sleep through-I have to set the alarm to check on her at least twice, and it's wearing me down. And I'm so groggy I can't function the rest of the time."
"Why don't I stay up with her for the nights I'm here? That way you can sleep and I'll go back to bed when you're up."
"I can't ask you to do that."
"Hey, I'm offering. I said I was going to sleep in this week; it doesn't really matter to me which end of the night I do it. Why don't I just sleep out on the couch tonight, so I'll hear her if she needs me, and then we can work out shifts."
"I shouldn't accept, but-I'm going to. Thank you so much. I'll make it up to you somehow, I promise."
So I became nocturnal while Sue lived a regular daytime life. It wouldn't have been bearable, except that Dodo, even in terminal illness, was still a lot of fun. I know it sounds crazy, but she was. She had an amazing spirit, and a sense of humor that transcended wheelchairs and bedpans. We talked about, oh, everything. And we'd play these cutthroat games of Chinese checkers at three am. One night we even had a tournament, complete with a gold star and a mock-laurel wreath for the winner. I made it out of the leftover fake holly from Christmas. Sue came into the living room early, about six, and caught us, all the lights blazing, the wreath sitting askew on top of the bows in Dodo's hair, me covered with crumbs from my snack, foil wrapping paper all over the floor.
She looked us over for a long moment, trying to decide which of us to chastise. Finally she picked me. "I can't believe you actually ate Fruit Cake," she said, correctly identifying the source of both the paper and the crumbs. "That was left over from Christmas. Are you sure you're feeling alright?"
I had an idea. I let myself fall back on the couch and started at her. "You are beautiful," I said. It only took her a second.
"And you are dr-drunk on fruitcake."
"Nutcase is more like it."
"Hardcore. And that's nutball to you."
By this time we were laughing very hard. Dodo was laughing right along with us, although I don't think she was in on our Xena fixation.
The next day I met Shirley and her sons. The sounds of their voices woke me a little before my usual four p.m. rising time. Shirley was recognizably a Saunders, but quite a bit older than Sue, with dyed hair and chipped polish on her nails. It quickly became apparent that my job was to keep the nephews occupied while Sue and Shirley did some quality time w/ their Gram and each other. Connor was six and Brad was ten; they had different fathers, neither of whom was currently in residence.
I could have just left them to their game-boys I guess, but for some reason I suggested we explore the barn. It was a wonderful old building, all post and beam construction, and not in bad shape, considering. It was full of junk, of course, and we had a blast. There was a workshop full of old tools there, and we collected some of the rusty ones from the dirt floor where they'd dropped and after I explained how valuable they were, both boys got interested in cleaning them up and protecting them with oil. I didn't keep them at any one thing too long; I was afraid of them getting bored.
We climbed into the hayloft, we made make-believe journeys in the old panel truck that was disintegrating in one corner, and Brad asked if it would ever run again. I had to tell him I didn't think it was likely, but I didn't know. Connor went even further into the dark corners and found an old sleigh. When we joined him he was dashing through imaginary snow, tossing handfuls of straw over himself instead, and warbling what he thought were Christmas carols. The lyrics were a little strange, something about Santa's sponge, but he was about as cute a kid as I've ever seen.
We were having such a great time for so long that Shirley came to check on us. She was a good sport about the dirt, I have to say. The three of us were completely filthy. We all went back to the house to clean up and have hot chocolate, and I gave the kids some of the chocolate bunnies I'd brought for Dodo's Easter basket.
They were tired enough to sit quietly with their Great Gram for a while, but I said goodbye before I went to take a shower. I knew it was going to be a major effort to get the grime off and the straw out of my hair. When I got back they were gone, and Sue was cooking dinner. Not that Dodo was eating much these days; she sipped continually at a can of Ensure, but she had more or less stopped eating real food. When I came into the kitchen Sue put her arms around me and just held on. I knew Dodo was getting close to leaving, and there wasn't anything I, or anyone else, could do about it.
That night Dodo drifted in and out of sleep, we didn't talk much, or play any games. She was in pain, and after I gave her some painkillers I just sat and stroked her head. She looked up at me in the dim light and asked, "Sue?"
"No, Dodo. It's Sarah. Sue's friend, remember?"
"Oh. Is Sue here?"
"Yeah, you want me to go get her?"
"No. Let her sleep. She's always been the good one, the one who fixed everyone else. But she needs something for herself, someone who cares for her. "
"I care about her."
"You're in love with my granddaughter, aren't you?"
"I think I might be."
"Will you take care of her for me?"
"Yes," I said, "I will." For some reason it didn't even faze me.
"I'd just like to see one more summer," Dodo said. And somehow I knew she would.
I went back to rubbing her head and she went right to sleep.
The next morning Sue came in and woke us both up; Dodo looked a little brighter, and said she'd like an egg for breakfast. She started eating again, and began to take more of an interest in things. In fact soon she was complaining again, a good sign. There was an evergreen that partially blocked her view of the bird feeder-I guess the winter snow had pushed some branches lower than usual-and darned if she didn't get me out there with a shovel, moving the tree while she directed from the window.
It was a major mudfest, getting it moved-we really needed a tree spade, one of those big machines that just bites the whole thing out of the ground-but with the aid of a hose and several yards of burlap I think I managed to preserve most of the root ball. By then I was really getting crabby, since I'd only had a short nap and missed my usual morning's sleep. Sue tactfully asked for help in the kitchen and then told me to go get a shower and some sleep.
When I woke up late in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, Sue was looking like the creature from the Black lagoon herself, coated in mud. She'd dug the new hole for the tree, though, and managed to shift the transplant all of two feet in the right direction. The look she gave me when I went out to help-part frustration, part commiseration, and some sheer conspiracy-well, it warmed me right down to my workboots. Finally between the two of us we got the tree planted in the new location, but by then it was too late to make Easter baskets, too late to cook supper; too late to do anything but dump our clothes and try to get clean before we used up all the hot water. Everything was closed, even the take-out Chinese place, so we dined on frozen pizza with kielbasa on top instead of pepperoni. For dessert we blew up some peeps in the microwave. It may sound strange, but it was one of the best holidays I ever spent.
Chapter 4 (Sue)
Fizzles, Fireworks, and Family Outings
I thought my grandmother was going to pass on in April, but she didn't. She came really close at Easter, but then for some reason she rallied again. She was almost as mobile as she'd been back in the winter. And just when I thought she was going to be around forever, she died.
It was near the end of June, and I'd brought in some early nasturtiums-she'd always loved the spicy scent of them- and she'd said, "Wonderful darling, my favorite flowers." I went to get a vase for them. I wasn't gone more than a couple of minutes. But when I came back into the room she was gone. I knew it instantly. I called the hospice nurse, and Shirley. I made arrangements. I didn't shed so much as tear, until I called Sarah, to give her the news. Somehow the sound of her voice, even just saying "hello?" set me off. I think I cried for at least an hour-I'm surprised I didn't short the phone out. And she was great, she took time off from work again to come and be with me. I don't know how I could have gotten through the funeral and all that without her.
It's strange, in a way I felt closer to her than to any of my sexual partners in the past, and all she did was hold me while we slept. I honestly have to say I wasn't ready for more though. Maybe if the past year hadn't been so stressful I'd have jumped in as fast as I did with some of my other relationships, I don't know. Perhaps the difference between Sarah and everybody else is that she seems to just focus on me, asking me what I want, and knowing what I need sometimes without my even saying a word. And after Paula, not having to be sexual on demand was more than a relief; it was a downright pleasure.
But the best part-the best part-was when she came for our Fourth of July barbecue and just stayed on. But before I get to that, there are a few things I need to explain. I hadn't known much about Gram's will, or anything about her estate, really. I don't know why; I guess I just assumed Shirley, being older, would have taken care of it.
The week after the funeral, our family lawyer, a tall spare woman I'd seen on a few occasions visiting over the years, called me and asked us to come to a meeting. Shirley and I went over there together, and I found she was as much in the dark as I was. Soon I was flabbergasted to find that Gram had left me her house and the considerable amount of land that went with it. Shirley got the duplex she'd been living in; apparently she'd been getting some support from Gram for years, while I'd been working. So instead of dividing the trust fund, Shirley got what was left of her half, a small amount of cash, and I got the remainder, which sounded like a large sum of money… and it was, but it happened to be just about what the taxes on the estate turned out to be.
So I was suddenly the owner of a large rambling house, a barn, the family graveyard, and several acres of mostly swamp. None of it was in good repair and there wasn't much money to fix anything, but fortunately I did have savings and hadn't used them entirely up, even though I'd hardly worked at all last year. I was kind of numb and grateful at the same time. But it still wasn't enough to really give me much breathing room. I didn't know what to do, and my brain was still in a fog of grief. I really didn't want to sell the place my family had owned for so many generations, but I wasn't sure I could handle it, either. And it needed a lot of repairs; I couldn't just, say, rent it out.
Sarah very tactfully didn't remind me that I knew a carpenter, when we spoke on the phone later. She didn't say, 'please let me fix up your Gram's place' or 'I'm pretty good with a nail gun, you know'. I think she didn't want to put any pressure on me at all. My fuse had been short for weeks; although I'd never actually yelled at her, I'd given a well-meaning but clueless minister an earful in her presence. I was a powder keg set to go off, and she knew it. She also knew that I had to make up my own mind in my own way, I think. I wasn't sure if I wanted her to be my girlfriend, let alone my employee, and the best thing about her right then was that she wasn't making me choose, she was just there, supporting me, letting me lean my angst on her without demanding anything in return. I was grieving and I was pretty confused, but I guess having gone through the same thing with her mom, she understood. She knew I couldn't really know what I wanted yet.
But there was no question about inviting her to our traditional Fourth of July party. For as long as I can remember the whole family had gathered at Gram's on the fourth. Some folks do it at Thanksgiving, but some time back our family had decided the weather was better in the summer, and that was the time the cousins from California and the rest of the relatives descended. The kids could camp in the back yard, the adults could pass out in the sun, and the bulk of the cooking could happen outside, where the heat wouldn't bake everyone in the kitchen too.
With Gram dying so close to the annual gathering we'd decided to have a private service at the funeral home, two days after she died, immediate family and her closest friends only, and then a memorial service for all the distant relatives on the fifth, when we'd bury her ashes in the family plot. It made the 4th of July kind of like a wake in reverse, but it seemed like the best way to work things out with everyone who had a long way to travel.
Sarah arrived early in the morning, toting a vat of potato salad and a six-pack of alcohol-free beer, and proceeded to help set up the tables in the back yard. Shirley got there right after, and immediately set Connor and Brad to work with Sarah outside, while she helped me finish the beds for the relatives who were staying over with us.
I had planned on putting Sarah in my room, since we'd slept in the same bed together the whole week after Gram died. She was so comforting. I felt very close to her, even though we still hadn't been intimate. I wasn't exactly out to my family, so I guess I thought they wouldn't really notice, or think about it one way or the other. I don't really know what I was thinking, to tell the truth. But the main thing was, I wasn't. Shirley knew, of course, but I'd never really come out to anyone else. Gram was the only one I really cared about, but Paula had no use for old people, and didn't want to meet the other 'fossils' so she'd never come to any family events with me, even though I wanted her to. So I had let things just ride. But today I was really too busy to think about what anyone else would think about it.
Everything went fine until dinnertime. The kids were having a blast playing with their super-soakers, and the adults were mostly unpacked and settled. The grill duties were divided up amicably, and it looked like the food was going to be done in time to catch up with the alcohol consumption, for once. We were about to get into Uncle Frank's special-recipe vodka-marinated ribs when the last thing I'd ever have expected happened.
Paula, unbeknownst and uninvited, drove in. It had never occurred to me that my new status as a property owner had suddenly increased my attraction for her; we'd been apart since the previous October, when she'd walked out on me. And I hadn't realized that she'd gotten her real estate license in the interim. I don't know how she passed; maybe she slept with everyone on the licensing board. I didn't even know she was there, at first; I'd gone into the kitchen to bring out some more salad, and Sarah was with me. So we missed her big entrance. But not her squeals of introduction.
She must have spent a little time boning up on my family connections, because she was cooing "And you must be Uncle Fred," from Uncle Frank's lap.
"I don't believe this." I said when I looked out the window.
"What?" Sarah asked.
"Well, you asked what my ex was like-it appears you are about to meet her in person."
She was in full ingratiate mode, glad-handing everyone, telling them she was a good friend of mine, how sorry she was about Ethel, and laying it on so thick that if half the adults hadn't already been shit-faced drunk even they would have thought she was over the top. Then I heard the words 'mortgage points' and began to see red.
"How do you want to play this one?" Sarah asked me.
"God, I don't know."
"So you don't want me to just be the heavy and move her along?"
"I wish-But give me a few minutes to find out what she wants, okay?"
"Sure. Just give me the sign if you want me to do something, though."
I barely heard her. I think I was already in a bit of a fog. I went out and walked up to Paula, and yanked her off Frank's lap.
"What the hell do you want, Paula?"
"Oooh," she cooed. "Sue, my old friend. I remember last year you invited me to Fourth of July and I couldn't make it. But I was just in the neighborhood so I thought I'd drop in this year."
"Riiight. Well, this is a family gathering." I said as I tried to drag her toward the grassy lot where everyone parked.
"But I'm family, as you should know very well-or would you like for me to tell all your relatives just how we're related?"
"Are you threatening to out me to my folks?"
"I'm sure it will come as no surprise. Why don't you go get me a beer and we'll just get caught up?"
"There's nothing to catch up on."
"Oh, but there is. I'm a full-fledged realtor now. I could really help you with your problems here. Come on, baby, you know you've missed me."
"Not-for-one-single-minute!" I could feel myself beginning to lose it. I just wasn't sure how far it was going to go. She started putting on her little-girl act, and batting her make-up clotted eyelashes at me.
"Well, I missed you. I just had to see how you were doing and-"
"I don't believe you."
"-offer my services. I have a very wealthy client who's looking for a summer place and I thought-"
"WHEN HELL FREEZES OVER!" I went from whisper to bellow in 30 seconds flat, and I could see Sarah motioning to Brad and some of his cousins. They went into a huddle at the edge of my peripheral vision.
My voice woke up the rest of the relatives-the ones who had still been snoozing-and suddenly everyone was looking at me. I could see Paula about to pounce, and I hated her still having that one tiny bit of power. It wasn't exactly the way I would have chosen, given time to do things in my own way, but I wasn't going to let Paula control me for a second longer. I pushed a bunch of dishes aside and stood up on the nearest table.
"Hey, everybody! Guess what! I'M GAY! Now don't tell me you hadn't been wondering!"
I looked over the crowd of shocked faces, and had a second to think that everyones' response was utterly typical of them. Frank was smirking, Shirley looked worried, Marge was nodding, cousin Mo-I think she was the one who said, "WHAT!?!"-was gasping as if she hadn't actually known homosexuality existed, Eunice and Teddy shrugged it off and went back to arguing, while their kids never stopped fighting. Erin, the teenager, was muttering "boring" and trying to disappear under her load of makeup, and… Bob was about to say something, probably something judgmental, knowing him, but I saw Sarah bend over by his chair and whisper something in his ear. He turned white and shut up like a clam that just got hit with a rake. The rest of them were just a blur.
I still had their attention, though, so I figured I might as well take advantage of it.
"And I am NOT selling my grandmother's HOUSE! And even if I were, I wouldn't list it with my EX GIRLFRIEND who is just LEAVING. And NO picking over Gram's furniture and stuff. I'll give out mementos when I'm damn good and ready! EVERYBODY CLEAR on that?"
Paula was just staring at me, wondering where I got the balls to yell at my whole family, I guess. So she never noticed Sarah motioning to Brad and his friends. When I saw what she had in mind I gave her the thumbs-up and Sarah yelled, "Fire at will!" So the super-soaker barrage was a complete and total surprise. Paula yelped, and suddenly her party-crashing ensemble-that perfect little straw hat and summer dress-was looking like something the cat dragged out. She tried to rally, but it was all over. Now that she'd been made fair game she couldn't even sidle up to the rest of the family looking for allies without a small boy squirting her in an embarrassing place. She did the only thing she could do; she jumped into her cute little sports car and drove away. I wished she ruined her transmission on the bumps in the driveway, but that seemed like too much to hope for.
Sarah had found the perfect way to support me without rescuing me, and after I was sure Paula had left and things had settled down I took her into the kitchen and kissed her. "I can't thank you enough, Sarah. I hope you don't mind being introduced as my girlfriend now, instead of just my friend."
"Nope. That was a pretty brave thing you did, Sue. Maybe now Bob will feel comfortable enough to bring his lover to family events."
"BOB? My cousin Bob is GAY?"
"Shhh! Uhuh. So far in the closet he thinks he's paneling, but yup."
"How did you know?"
"Your Gram told me."
"How did she know?"
"I don't know, how did she know anything? She lived a good long time and put up with a lot of crap."
"Yeah, she knew. She asked me if back in April if I was in love with you."
"And what did you say?"
"I said I thought I was."
"How about now?"
"I still think so." She got this funny little grin on her face.
"I think I might think so too." We kissed again, until I could hear Frank calling us back to the barbecue. For some reason he seemed to think 'SooowwEEE' was an appropriate way to call everybody to eat pork.
"You Yankees are a strange bunch."
"I know we are. Salad dressing?"
The rest of the picnic was pretty uneventful, in comparison. The sun set and we got ready to watch the fireworks, which we could see quite well from Gram's front yard. I sat on Sarah's lap and she put her arms around me. It's a good thing Adirondack chairs are well made.
So we sat there watching the sparklers rain down.
"What did you tell Brad to get him to shoot Paula with his water gun?"
"Oh, I just said she'd come here to be mean to his favorite aunt."
"Yeah… oh, I suggested it might be fun to use the ice water from the coolers to load up with too."
"That was ice water?" I started to laugh.
"Well, I think one of them had some grape soda in it too. Just for variety."
"Oh you are good."
"You know it. Wanna… test it out?"
"Yeah. Not here. Not with everybody breathing in the next room. But yeah."
"How about we go for a little trip, then? You could use some time away."
"It's a date. As soon as we get Gram's ashes planted."
So after the memorial, we took a little trip to the mountains. I figured the beach would be too crowded, and I wanted to camp out, someplace quiet, where I wouldn't be able to tell if I was seeing stars because they were in the sky, or because Sarah was making me see them. It took me a little while to get comfortable, physically. It had been a long time and I had some bad memories to erase. But Sarah was just as patient as I knew she would be, and I'm happy to report that we did finally map some new constellations, ones that no one else will ever see.
Chapter 5 (Sarah)
Love's Labor Daze
Oh, man. I can't believe the time has gone sooo fast. Seems like one minute I was freezing my ass off in the western part of the state, and then suddenly I'm broiling on the north shore. Oh well. It's been worth it. Not that it's been easy, exactly. But if I had the choice, to be with someone, or to be alone, well…I'm not sure but what I'd pick being alone if it were anyone else but Sue.
I thought once we got to the point of being physically involved with each other, that things would smooth out. Boyoboyoboy was I wrong. I'll tell you one thing-if I ever catch Paula on this property again, a damn water pistol isn't going to be enough.
It isn't so much what Sue has said about her, which is damn little, really. It's those moments when she can't help but freeze. When I can see her fear, although she tries really hard to cover it up. It's funny, because she seems so fearless at times-like when she yelled at her whole family on the Fourth of July. When some giant hormonal 7th grader wants to give her a hard time (I have yet to see this in person, but Marge told me about it) or some dipshit doctor who can't wait to get back to the golf links won't give her a straight answer, she's like a dragon. I know from my own experience that when she makes up her mind about something she can be pretty bossy. And she was right, at the time; I really did need to be taken to the emergency room.
Maybe the difference is that she can breathe fire when she has to, but it's not so easy to keep the flame of passion steady. It's hard to trust and relax when you've been burned that deeply. I should talk. I'm no expert in the relationship department either.
I don't know how it happened that Sue gets under my guard the way she does. But it's like she can see right through me. In fact I found out that was really the key to help her relax-I had to drop all the machisma bullshit that I kinda got used to keeping up on the job. With her all I had to do was be myself. Which isn't so easy if you aren't used to it.
It's not always easy to work with men, although I've always been pretty good at being one of the boys. It's basically very simple. If you spit and use profanity a lot they seem to feel like they can be themselves and accept you pretty easily. But with women who are determined to be even tougher than men, it can be a struggle. Sometimes I think there's nothing worse than a crew of butches competing to out-butch each other. Okay, so sometimes the job demands it. There's nothing fun about being up on a roof in a cold November wind. But there's no need to push it beyond safety either. Don't get me wrong, Char's a great boss, she'd never condone anything really risky. Her insurance is bad enough as it is, without anybody getting hurt. Pat's table-saw accident was totally her own fault, as far as I'm concerned. But it sure gave me a scare; I haven't had a drop of alcohol since. Not even a beer. And mostly I get along great with the crew. But sometimes they grate on me, ya know?
Sue said the hardest thing about coming out for her was the way other lesbians treated her. I can see that. But then how did she get stupid enough to go out with Paula? I don't know. I wish Dodo were here. I know she'd have something wise and funny to say, and I'd feel better.
That's the thing, you know? I know part of our problem is Sue grieving for the only real mother she ever had. Her emotions are all raw and on the surface right now. It's not the greatest time to start a relationship. Gosh my timing really sucks.
"Honey?" Sue's voice in the gloom interrupted my thoughts.
"Sweetie, what's going on? You planning to sleep in the barn tonight?"
"Do you want me to?"
"No. God, no. Oh, shit, I'm sorry. I don't mean to be so difficult."
"S'okay, I know."
"It was just Bernie being a jerk, that's all. He makes me crazy, and I just have to blow. But I was taking it out on you and that was totally wrong of me."
"No, it's not. You've been nothing but supportive. You don't deserve to be on the wrong end of my temper at all. I'm so sorry. Forgive me?"
'Nothing to forgive. I understand."
"Hey. I was out of line. I'm sorry, I don't know what's wrong with me."
"Darling, there's nothing wrong with you. It's grief. It lets loose a lot of feelings. I was a wreck after my mother died. I know you didn't mean to be hurtful to me."
She sighed, and leaned into me. "How did you get to be so patient?"
"I dunno. Just lucky I guess." I gave her a soft kiss, and caressed her side near her breast, to see how the rest of my luck was running. Judging by the way she stroked my tongue with hers in response, it was pretty good.
We made our way up to bed, and made love. Usually I drift right off to sleep after a blast of endorphins like that, but this time I lay awake, listening to the night noises. It had been a long while since I'd spent so much time in the country, particularly without the whine of saws going, the ka-chunk ka-chunk of nail guns, and the chuff-chuff of the compressor drowning it all out. I could tell Sue wasn't sleeping either. Finally I reached over and started stroking her hair.
"Wanna talk about it?"
She sighed. There was a pause, while she thought about it, and then she sighed again. "I just don't know what I'm going to do."
"Everything. This place, my job, everything. My whole life. Us."
I wasn't sure if that was a bad thing or a good thing. "That sounds pretty comprehensive. Sure you want to think about all that tonight?"
"Oh, I know. I can't help it, though."
"Do I get any say in the 'us' part?" I gave her a little tickle
That made her giggle, and she put on her cat voice again. "No. I'm Queen of the Universe, and I get to decide."
"Would the Queen of the Universe take a bribe?"
"Whatcha got to bribe me with, dog-woman?" The cat-voice continued.
"Uh." I deepened my voice. "I got, um, good kibbles?"
"No. I don't want no stinking kibbles. Concentrate and bribe again."
"Tuna in tomorrow and see."
"Bad Kitty. Tuna over and go to sleep."
By this time we were both tickling each other and giggling so hard we couldn't talk any more. We ended up so tangled in the sheet and each other we could hardly breathe. At last we stopped and caught our breaths.
"Oh god now you've got me wanting sushi."
"Are you really hungry?"
"How about the next best thing?" I was conveniently placed for a strategic nip, and she let out a shriek; it was good one, though. After our week of camping I was beginning to gain some confidence in the way to touch her. We had been pretty thorough before, but this time I made sure there was no room for a single thought in my girl's pretty little head. When we finally got our breath, she said, "Much better than sushi." And proceeded to reciprocate. I lost the thread of the conversation at that point.
When I woke up in the morning we were glued together with sweat and our combined fluids. It was late, it was hot, the sun was already bright, and I could hardly move, even without my girlfriend on top of me. One of her bare feet was stuck to the side of my face. I felt so full, so raw; I almost wanted to go back in the barn and hide. It was as if every atom of my body had been rearranged. I shifted a little bit, trying to figure out what limbs were mine, and woke Sue up in the process.
She rolled over and yawned and smiled at me, and climbed up for a kiss. I have no idea why, but I burst into tears. I just couldn't stop. Sue just held me, a little puzzled look on her face. Finally I started to hiccup, and I couldn't stop that either. She began to look concerned. She got up and got me a glass of water, and stroked my head, until I calmed down a little. Eventually she got up and dragged me with her into the shower. I couldn't talk; and every few minutes I'd have a crying jag again. Sue washing me so tenderly wasn't helping, for some reason.
At last we rinsed off and I wrapped myself up in a big towel and slumped down to sit on the floor. I was still sniveling, although it seemed like I couldn't have any tears left in me.
Sue put on her robe and sat down on the floor opposite me. She gave me a long, deep, searching, thoughtful look, and said, "According to my memory, the last time we ate together was brunch at that diner in New Hampshire yesterday morning. Did you eat anything else yesterday?"
I shook my head no.
"Then I suggest breakfast before we try to do anything else. Okay?"
I was too far gone, I just couldn't wait. "Are you going to-hic- dump me?"
"Whaaaat? Where's that coming from?"
"Last night-you said-damn these hic-ups-"
"Sweetie, I said a lot of things last night, including 'oh god' and your name. Multiple times, as I recall. There might even be some connection between the two. But let me reassure you that dumping you is the furthest thing from my mind. You just sit tight and I'll feed you, and then we'll go from there."
She got up and left the room, and I tried to pull myself together. I was so shaky I could barely stand up. I looked myself in the eye in the mirror, and hiccupped again. "You," I addressed myself, "are an idiot."
I managed to get sort of dressed when Sue reappeared in the bedroom with a big glass of orange juice and an equally big glass of water. She sat down next to me on the bed and said, "Now drink these down, honey. Nice and slow. That's it." She rubbed my back, gently easing the sore spots with unerring accuracy. "Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes. Come down when you're ready."
I drank the water slowly while holding my breath and got the hiccups under control at last. Then I moved on the orange juice. It was freshly squeezed, not out of a carton, and I couldn't believe how good it tasted. It stung my mouth a little, but I began to feel better almost instantly. I made my way downstairs where the most amazing smells were wafting out.
"Bacon and sausage?" I kissed her.
"And eggs. I know you need your protein. And waffles with fruit and whipped cream."
"Can I do anything?"
"Uh…wash these and cut them up?" She handed me the box of strawberries. "And after that, make whipped cream?"
We made light conversation over our food. Despite being the bereaved one, and therefore the one voted most likely to be emotionally off kilter, Sue seemed to have an admirable grasp of normal, and a way of making me feel at ease. When I finally pushed my plate back, I felt like I could go right back to sleep, and said so.
"Well, we really didn't get much sleep last night, so you go right ahead, but I have a suggestion, if you want."
"I'm thinking about taking a picnic up to the old orchard. There's a big hammock we could snooze in, and it's bound to be cooler up there under the trees. It's a great spot, and you've hardly seen the property with everything that's gone on."
"Sure, that sounds great. At the moment I feel like I may never need to eat again, but that could change in a few hours."
We walked slowly up the hill, trying not to melt in the heat. It was a great place, though. The old apple trees were gnarled and twisted; some of the limbs were rotten, and it looked like they too needed some work. But the hammock was mercifully intact, and we settled in for a nap, one of us at each end, feet and legs over-lapping the middle.
It was a perfect summer day. There was a light breeze, and the moving shadows of the leaves were very soothing. I dozed off thinking that Sue really knew how to handle me, and wondering if it was because she taught difficult kids, and if that made me one by extension.
When I woke up Sue was already awake, standing on the grass over by another tree. I felt almost drugged, as if I could hardly move, but I tried to get up anyway. Sue came over and sat down next to me.
"Hi." She said.
"Hi. Listen. I'm sorry…"
"Shhh. Relax a minute. Do you want something to drink?"
"Sure, what is there?"
"Water and lemonade."
"Lemonade sounds good."
"And here's some sandwiches."
I hadn't known how hungry I was, or how tired, until I napped and ate. I was starting to feel a little more like myself, when Sue asked if I wanted to walk around a little, to look at the trees. It had cooled down a tad by then, so I said sure. The old orchard was a really great place: the hum of bees, the swish of our feet in the long grass; everything about the place murmured peace and tranquility. Eventually we circled around and ended up back at the big tree with the hammock.
We sat back down and had some more lemonade, and Sue asked if we could talk about some stuff. I shrugged and said yes.
"I-I've been thinking, Sarah. Well, you know that. I mean, about a lot of things. I guess the first thing is, well, us."
"As in, you not dumping me, us?"
"Uh huh, that us. What ever gave you the idea I might be wanting out?"
"I think-I think that's just how my fear comes out. Things got so intense-I just freaked out. I lost me, and got scared. Maybe I'm afraid things won't work, and then I worry that you won't want to."
"But you do want to be-I mean, do you want us to be together?"
"Yeah, I do. This has been a great week for me. I really-I- I can't express it. But I do want to be with you."
"Yeah, me too. I really want to be with you, too. But it's going to be hard, with our jobs and lives the way they are."
"I know. Last winter was hard. I don't think I could do that again, anyway. I'm not sure I want to."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, it was so long between times we saw each other it was like starting over every time. Course I was pretty out of it in February."
"You mean the great Valentines Day Kleenex massacre?"
"Yeah, that." I chuckled. I had a sudden vision of an endless series of mornings, of us getting up together, washing, eating, and laughing. It warmed me deep inside in places I'd never thought of as cold before. I knew with absolute certainty it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I didn't want to freak Sue out, though. So I took a minute to figure out a way to put it. "You know, just because I've been going out on these jobs all over the place… well, there's nothing says I have to."
"You mean, quit your job? How could you do that?"
"Nah. Not quit. Maybe shift over to another part of the job, just do millwork, or something I can do at home, that won't take me away so much. Char's pretty good, I've worked for her a long time and she understands. She can be pretty flexible if I give her enough notice."
"Sarah, I don't want to interfere with your job, but do you think you could work on this place? I mean, is it too big a job?"
"To do what?"
"Well, the roof is crucial. I have to stop the leaks if I plan to keep the place. And the chimney needs to be done too."
"You want me to work on Dodo's house? Catching up on 30 years of, uh, deferred maintenance?"
"Something like that-Oh, I mean I can pay you. I don't want to be buying your attention, though."
"Darlin' you got my attention. But I'm sure I couldn't do what the place needs by myself, and lord knows I'm not a mason. You might be better off getting a contractor. You're gonna need a lot more of a crew than just me."
"I know that. But what I need to know is, well, would you want to-would you be able to-live with me if I decided to move up here?"
"That's what you're thinking about? Moving up here? What about your job?"
Sue sighed. "I'm not really happy with the system there. I've been thinking about quitting and looking for work maybe in a private school, or an alternative or charter school or something. I've been thinking about it for a long time, but I just never acted on the thought. "
"I had no idea, I thought you loved your work."
"Oh, I do. But what I love is the 'working with kids' part, not the administrative stuff. And I am sick to death of being in the closet. I want to be able to be open with you, bring you to things as my partner. I thought and thought about going back and the more time I spend with you the more the thought of going back there feels like self-strangulation, nothing erotic about it. No matter where we end up, I'm going to look for another job."
"So what do you think?"
"I love you, and I'd love to live with you. I don't care where."
She threw herself on top of me pushing me over into the hammock, and I just barely managed to keep both of us from falling out on our respective asses. We spent a lot of time on the non-verbal communicating part, and I was almost dozing off in contentment again when suddenly Sue shot bolt upright and stared at me.
"Oh my God!" she practically yelled.
"We haven't introduced our pets. Do you know I haven't even met your dog? What if she doesn't like me? What if she goes after my cats? What if they don't like each other?"
"Maybe we can get some advice from the shelter. I'm sure if we take it slow, we can introduce them. It'll be fine." Yikes.
>< >< ><
It went about like you'd expect. When we went back to our respective homes from Dodo's, I went and got Eph so Sue could meet her. They adored each other instantly. She ooh-ed and ah-ed over the long ears, the soft fur, and Eph took the sliced turkey out of her hand pretty gently, for her, and then licked Sue's face. I was real proud of her. Heck, I was proud of both of them. Sue was still worried that the dog would chase her cats, though, so we agreed that I'd bring Eph over to her place, where the cats would be on their home turf.
So the next day, after work, I brought Eph over to Sue's apartment. Hippo swelled up to like six times her normal size and started stalking her, hissing like a cut tire, while Mel spat and ran for the closet. Eph had no idea what the noisy thing was, and tried for a friendly sniff of Hippo's butt. She got whacked on the nose with extended claws, and yipped real loud. She tucked her tail under and ran to hide in the closet too, and then got a second swipe from Melosa who yowled like a banshee and made a mad dash for the bedroom before Sue could grab either of them. Eph tried to hide between my legs, shaking so hard her tags clinked. I have to confess we were laughing too hard to help at first. At last Sue got a grip on Hippo and I had my arms full of quivering Ephiny.
We just stood there looking at each other over two sets of flattened ears. "Our kids hate each other," I said, unnecessarily.
"I'll call the shelter tomorrow," Sue said.
>< >< ><
We sat in the waiting room at the animal shelter/veterinary hospital and suddenly Sue turned to me and said, "Honey, do you realize something? This is our first counselling session together."
"How romantic." I was secretly terrified that I was going to have to give Eph to Jane permanently if I was going to live with Sue and it was putting me a little on edge. Sue chatted on and on and had a bit of conversation with another cat owner, cooing over the carrier. I wished I could loosen up but I found I was sweating, and all my muscles were tight, and my head felt like it was about to explode.
Finally it was our turn to go back and talk to the expert from the shelter, and we walked into a wall of noise. Sue took one look at me and asked if I was all right.
"Fine" I got out through clenched teeth. I felt like I was going to faint. But then we were back in the office away from the howling of abandoned animals. I still felt sick to my stomach, but someone shoved a chair under me, and that helped.
Once I got it through my thick head that what happened with our pets was normal for a first visit, and not the end of the world, I started to breathe again. I was a little hazy on the details, and Sue did all the talking, but I could tell I'd been an idiot again. Screen doors, supervision, spray bottles, I could do that. Thank goodness I'd crate-trained Eph when she was a puppy.
I knew I must have looked pretty scary for a while, though, because it was almost a week before Sue asked me what I'd been thinking while we were at the office. By then it was actually kinda funny, so I told her, expecting her to laugh, too. She didn't. She said she would never make me choose between her and a pet, what kind of witch did I think she was? Then she got all worried, and asked why I assumed the worst as a default setting. I had to think about that for a while, and then realized it had a lot to do with my last-also my first serious, and therefore my only really serious adult relationship. Heather wasn't exactly in Paula's league, but she had left me with my brains fucked just the same.
Sue said she was sorry, but if she ever met Heather she was going to have to hurt her. I said ditto for Paula, and we made it a pact.
Anyway, I was bringing Eph over to her house every night, mostly keeping her in the crate, and only letting her out when the Amazon kitties were locked in the bedroom. It gave them a chance to check out each other's scent. Of course the first thing Eph checked out was the catfood, which we weren't fast enough picking up. And of course she barfed it all back up later that night, just when we were most in need of deep sleep. Did I mention the nervous peeing on the rug part? We each cleaned up after our own pets, but it was a struggle to keep up sometimes. I wished I owned stock in Fabreeze.
After that first night back when we slept alone in our respective apartments we were sleeping together in her bed. There was no room for another person on my couch above the shop, and I wasn't keen on the idea of a Thermarest on the floor. It's just not the same when you don't have woods all around it. Staying at Dodo's I'd gotten used to a bed, and not just a soft mattress, but a nice soft girl along with it, and it was really hard to go back. I just couldn't and Sue didn't seem to mind.
I was absolutely ruthless with Char about needing the weekend off-the WHOLE weekend-and Friday night we went back up to Dodo's. We had two cars, three animal carry-cases, a whole bunch of Sue's stuff, and an assortment of gates and screens to let our kids get used to seeing and smelling both each other, and Dodo's two cats, which Marge had been taking care of while we were gone.
The first thing we both did when we got there was burst into tears. The place seemed so empty without Dodo. But there's something about a good cry, particularly if there's someone who shares it with you. We had a long, intimate, heart-felt hug after the tears slowed down, and that felt good.
"Gosh I miss her."
"I know what you mean," I said, "but I'm sure she's watching out for you."
"I know she is. If there's an 'up there' for her to be in, she's probably telling St Peter all the worst jokes about heaven. And knowing her, he would be laughing. Did I ever tell you about my grandfather's funeral?"
"Well, as you know, my grandfather traveled all over. He collected a lot of things, too. And the idea at his funeral was that we would bring some of his favorite artifacts to commemorate some of his journeys."
"Well, several things went wrong. He died in the middle of winter, and there was a really sharp cold snap the week after. The furnace in the Unitarian church where we were planning to have the service blew up the day before the funeral. The building was saved, but there was some smoke damage, and it was freezing, so we had to move. The Congers offered, but the Episcopalians were closer, so we went there. Well, they hadn't realized that also meant hosting the Arthur Saunders personal anthropological collection.
"One of his longest studies had been done in Brazil, in the remote parts of the Amazon, and one of the things he brought back was a shrunken head, a real one. And it was kind of awkward, it was meant to hang on a pole, but there was no place to put it. Gram ended up winding it by the hair around a crucifix, so it was right up there on the altar with the casket. Well, you should have seen the minister's face! I thought he was going to faint. But he didn't dare say anything to Gram, so it stayed up there for the whole service."
"Oh, my god. Dodo sure was a pistol, wasn't she?"
"Yup, she sure was."
"I guess as it was originally planned there wouldn't have been a problem? I mean the Unitarians are a lot more broad-minded about hosting witchdoctors I guess."
"Yup. Pagans and shamans and gays, oh my."
By this time we had almost finished the initial deploy of pet gates. I forgot to mention about Dodo's two cats. She called them, alternately, "Slump and Grunt" or "Gap and Swallow" but Sue told me their real names were "Sweet and "Low". Brad had named them shortly after his great-grandfather had developed diabetes.
It would be hard to find more inappropriate names for a pair of felines, although Low had been spayed while she was pregnant and was pretty low-slung with the fur under her belly. She did sort of live down to her name. But Sweet was one of those monster kitties that almost made Hippo look small in comparison. She was sort of stripy and gray with this amazing kind of Rastafarian fur and tufts of hair on her ears that made her look a little like a miniature lynx. Still, she sure was big for a cat, though. Sue said she probably had some Maine Coon cat in her, and she looked like she'd be very capable at hunting small game. Dodo had once joked that they'd thought about getting a deer license for her during hunting season, only she wouldn't stand for the orange vest they'd need to pin it to.
Well, after much shifting of bowls and litter boxes and such we got our pets settled behind their screens. Sweet and Hippo caught one glimpse of each other and let out this strange predatory howl. Almost sub-vocal at first, it was a low vibration that built to a shriek and then dropped back like the Doppler effect of a distant train. And it came out of (at least) two feline throats like a strange slightly out of phase stereo.
"Oh boy," was all I said.
"Yeah, maybe this was a bad idea," Sue agreed.
"Well, lets give it a while and see how it goes. The vet did say it could take time."
We went into the kitchen and ate our lunch, trying to ignore the muffled wailing that was coming from various parts of the house, while Ephiny cowered at my feet.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in unloading our stuff, and by dinnertime we were thoroughly exhausted. We let Sweet and Low out for a little while in the evening, so they could have their usual excursion into the field. Sweet brought back a dead, still-bloody rabbit she must have caught unawares, and I had to dispose of it. Sue Insisted I wear rubber gloves, for fear of rabbit fever; apparently there had been a tularemia outbreak the year before and she didn't want me taking any chances. After I'd buried it in the garden we managed to corral the felines again, after much hissing and batting of screens. All four felines were fascinated by Eph's tail, and tried to play with it through the screen.
Maybe it was just because we were so tired when we went to bed that we didn't fasten the gates properly, or perhaps the sheer weight of Hippo launching herself against the screens with determination, over and over, loosened them up. I don't know how it happened, but the next morning I woke before dawn to Bacchae screams coming from downstairs. It was summer, it was hot, and I was still exhausted, or I might have stopped to think of shoes, but I was still more than half-asleep, and I didn't. So I walked right into the middle of the war zone with bare feet. Sweet and Hyppolyta were both out of their rooms and in a standoff in the hall by the kitchen, and I had walked right between the two of them. Before I knew what hit me, Hippo had my entire foot in her mouth, as if the whole thing were my fault from the start, and eating me feet first would solve the problem. Between the yelling, the screaming, and the howling, Sue woke up and came downstairs. She had the presence of mind to bring the spray bottle, and she chased the now damp cats back into their respective rooms. I could hear her voice, low, serious, talking to all the cats, although I couldn't hear exactly what she said to them.
She finished the lecture eventually and found me in the kitchen, holding my foot and cowering on a tall stool. She made me put my foot in the sink while she washed out the wounds-two deep punctures and a gash-and poured hydrogen peroxide over them. She taped them up, found me some sandals, made some coffee, and soothed down both Eph and me.
I wiped the tears off my face and tried to smile at her over the coffee.
"Can't we all just-sniff- get along?" I knew it wasn't a very good attempt at humor, but it was the best I could do at the time.
"Aw, Sarah, I'm sorry."
"Not your fault, hon. We knew it wasn't going to be easy."
"Hey, I'll be fine. I heal quick."
Well, I was sore as heck. I limped around all day trying to help, and cursing a blue streak, until finally Sue stuck a glass of lemonade in my hand and forcibly shoved me into a chair in the shade in the back yard. Then I whined until she came out to join me, and at last we had a moment of peace. Together. She sat on my lap and we made just kinda silly, goofy small talk, kissing each other slowly as the sun began to set. Oh, yeah, this was what I signed up for.
But I hadn't gotten off quite so easily after all. The next morning my foot was puffed up to twice its size and angry red streaks were spreading up my leg. Sue bundled me off to the emergency room-again-and more antibiotics were pumped into me. Sheesh. I hate the damn things-they make me just miserable you-know-where-but it was that or take the foot off at the ankle, the doc said, so I had to go with the meds.
It slowed me down considerably, being injured, but in hindsight perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing. I couldn't just escape to the barn when I got tense, or cover up my inadequacies with working. And I had to learn how to let Sue take care of me a little, which she was very good at, much more competent that I would have been in her place. But there were other rocks ahead.
So the next morning after she changed my bandage I sat on a big poofy footstool in Dodo's bedroom while Sue sorted through the clothes, and just kept her company. Every once in a while she'd hit a dress or an item that she couldn't make up her mind about, and I'd wait, and another little story would come out.
By late afternoon she had made up several big bags for the thrift shop-she 'd vowed never to give the Salvation Army another nickel after finding out about their policy on gays-and a couple for the dump. We were just chatting along when I just idly wondered why Sue had the whole job of house clearing.
"How come Shirley doesn't help you with this?"
"It's not her stuff. Gram left this all to me. So I guess it's my task to get rid of it."
"I just thought your sister might be a help, that's all."
"Oh, Shirley's a great help, that's for sure." Sue began stuffing the clothes so forcibly into the bags that she almost tore them.
"Why, what happened?"
"NONE OF YOUR DAMN BUSINESS!"
"Yikes, Sorry! I just asked a question, I didn't mean to intrude." I couldn't keep the sarcasm out of my voice as I limped off to sulk in the kitchen. She was just being so damned unfair. It wasn't like I wanted to pry. And for gods' sake, we were sleeping together. And the things she did to me in bed-well, asking about her sister seemed absurdly impersonal in comparison.
I thought I'd do something helpful and make coffee, but I was still upset, so I wasn't really paying attention. I managed to knock the coffee maker over with the pot and when I turned to grab for it I brained myself with the cupboard door, upsetting the coffee in the process. I howled in pain and slipped to the floor, and that set off Ephiny, who started barking from the room we'd been putting her in when she wasn't crated in the bedroom.
Sue walked in at just that moment, and looked the situation over. "Jesus. What a mess! What the hell are you doing?"
"I was trying to make coffee."
"Oh. Well, you aren't helping, Sarah. How can I ever get this place cleaned up if you go dumping coffee all over it?"
She was so angry, and so unfair about it, that suddenly I was about 6 again. My head hurt, my foot hurt, I just lost it and burst into tears. Ephiny barked even louder. Sue made one grand angry gesture, trying to kick away the coffee can rolling around by her foot, but she missed, fell on her butt, and then she started to cry too. That was apparently enough to set off the cats. With two humans, a dog, and four felines all yowling at the top of our lungs, the noise was deafening. Sweet just about broke the sound barrier, and Hippo's trills of rage were indescribable. Sue and I looked at each other, both on our butts on opposite sides of the kitchen floor, and we couldn't help it, we burst out laughing through our tears. The whole thing had just gone over the top from tragedy to comic opera.
Sue crawled over and got into my lap, still sobbing and laughing at the same time.
"Shirley's suing me over Gram's will," she finally got out.
"She's suing me. Well, she and Bernie. He's the lawyer. I got the papers yesterday."
"Gosh, Hon, why didn't you say anything?"
"Well, it was while I was waiting for you at the hospital-that's when I opened the mail. I knew you were feeling bad. I didn't want to add to it."
"Oh, honey, I'm so sorry. I had no idea. I thought you got along great with your sister."
"I did too. That's why it hurts so much."
"Have you talked to her?"
"Maybe you should."
"Maybe. But maybe she's right. Maybe I don't deserve this place."
"Now wait a minute. Slow down. What brought that on? I thought you guys agreed?"
Sue sighed. "I thought we did too. You want to see the papers?"
"Well, only if you want to show them to me. I mean, it's really none of my business."
"Sarah, I'm sorry about what I said earlier. I want you in my life. So it is your business too. I know you aren't Paula, and you don't try to control me the way she did. But after three years of abuse, it's hard to break the habits."
"Oh, my god, Honey-"
"I had no idea-"
"Well, it's not something I'm at all proud of. Has a lot to do with my mother I guess."
Well, we picked ourselves up and got things cleaned up a little. We shut the doors on the cats and went out for dinner, taking Eph in my truck with us. And when we got home, Sue got out the letter she'd received from Bernie's law firm.
I read it over, trying to make head or tail of all the legalese, until I got to the end. "Hon, I know your sister's name is in here, but she didn't sign it anywhere. Are you sure she's behind this?"
"Now that you mention it, no, I'm not. Bernie's scum. It would be just like him to do something like this. But I'm really surprised Shirl went along with it."
"Maybe she didn't."
"Maybe she didn't. Maybe he just put her name on the documents to upset you."
"There's a thought. You're right. I should call her and find out."
I left them to it. I needed some sleep, and a bit of private time myself. That night in bed I found myself tensing up and we didn't make love, or even attempt it, really. I just pretended I was too tired. But I think Sue knew it wasn't just a bad day, and my foot hurting. She was really quiet.
My foot was still bad but I went back to the shop to work on stuff I could do there, rather than limp around the site. But we talked on the phone every night, and things seemed easier when I drove up on Friday.
The upshot of the legal stuff was that the next weekend Shirley and the boys came out to visit again. While the sisters talked, I played with the boys. They were very well behaved, really. I knew Sue had said a few things about her sister not having it together in some ways, but she'd done a great job of parenting, I thought. Her kids were smart and funny and polite; it was a pleasure spending time with them.
We built a fort in the orchard with old branches. Sue and I'd been wanting to collect some of the deadfall, and this seemed like a great way to make the job fun. Brad was more serious, being older perhaps; but Connor really had an imagination, and the things he did with those old sticks were works of art. He explained that they were people, and they told him what they wanted to do. When he explained it I could see arms and legs in some of them, but it was a stretch.
Of course Eph was with us, but somehow she hadn't developed the obsession with sticks that some dogs do, so she didn't chew up any of Connor's stick friends, fortunately. She did bring us three turtles over the course of the afternoon, however.
After the fort we rested and made patterns in the clouds. It's rare that kids these days have an interest in anything that's not electronic, but Brad and Connor really knew how to play, and anything could become a toy for them. I wanted to take them to the beach one day; I hadn't made sand castles since I was a kid, and I thought they'd be really good at it.
When we got back Sue seemed really relieved; happier almost than I seen her since our week in Maine. She and Shirley were getting along great, making dinner for all of us, and Shirl and the kids were staying overnight.
After the kids were in bed we sat around talking; it was the first chance I'd had to really get to know Shirley herself. She was an artist, it seemed; she made jewelry, batik shirts, and other craft stuff. She worked at home and went to fairs when she could, but between her day job as a receptionist and her Gram's illness, there hadn't been any time for that part of her life in the last few months. But I could see where the kids got their sense of creativity.
At one point Sue went up to look for something, and left us alone. Shirl blew out a cloud of smoke and looked me over.
"The boys adore you."
"Well, thanks, I like them too. They are really great kids. You've done a great job with them."
"Thanks." She paused for a second. "You know, you are the first lover Sue has had who wasn't an alcoholic? Or on the way to being one?"
"No I didn't."
"Has she told you anything about mom?"
"Well, a little. I know she wasn't around much, and that you were mostly raised by your Gram, but-"
"Our mother was an alcoholic. Our dad tried but he couldn't help her, and eventually he left us. Then mom fell in love with a guy who was a heroin addict, picked up his habit, and died from an overdose when Sue was three. She doesn't remember much about it. But I do. If you ever need to talk, please feel free to call me."
"Wow. That-that explains a lot. Thanks for telling me. My mother was an alcoholic, too. But she had a few years of sobriety before she died."
Well, Sue came back at that point, and the conversation shifted back to other things. Later, when we went to bed, Sue told me I'd been right about Bernie: He'd been a total snake, and she and Shirley were seeing the lawyer together next week to straighten things out.
I had planned to stay the whole week helping Sue with the cats and the stuff, but Char called Sunday night and begged, so Sue and I talked it over and I went back to work.
It was a sucky week, hot, humid, and miserable, with the occasional thundershower to make us scramble putting tools away, but we got a lot done in spite of it. I had to throw myself into things to keep from thinking about what was going on w/ Sue. I tried calling a couple of times, and so did she, but we kept missing each other. Perhaps it was just as well, because there was still that lingering doubt in my mind from when she yelled at me for no reason. Well, no reason connected to me or my behavior, anyway.
You know, I could have just stayed. Char thought that the idea of my doing repairs for my new girlfriend on her recently inherited house was a formula for disaster. I can't say I thought she was wrong, between the size of the job and the way Sue had blown up at me. But I knew she was stressed, and we both had issues, so what? If I wanted to wait until I was perfect to have a relationship, I'd never get there in this lifetime, I was sure. And I really missed her: her scent, her touch, her eyes, her voice; I wanted to be laughing with her, not my co-workers. And from the phone messages I figured she was missing me too.
I left as soon as I could on Friday, but with the traffic and all it was nearly nine before I got to the house, and dusk was settling over the landscape. I pulled up near the barn and thought I caught a glimpse of a critter in the shrubbery, maybe a raccoon, maybe a skunk, but small. But even a small skunk could be trouble. I couldn't see well enough to make it out, and the last thing I wanted was to have to spend my romantic weekend bathing Eph in tomato juice instead of catching up on sex, so I dragged her on in by the leash.
When I walked in I couldn't believe how much progress Sue had made with the house. I'd never seen the dining room before, mostly because up until then it had been chock-a-block full of stuff. But there was a beautiful mahogany table set for two, with candles, and flowers and all the accoutrements-fancy china, crystal, linen napkins, you name it. And whatever was cooking sure smelled wonderful.
When Sue put her arms around me, though, it all disappeared. She was what I'd been starving for, and the only thing that kept me from shifting the menu right then and there was all the trouble she'd gone to, arranging a special meal. But after a bit slowing things down didn't seem to be a bad thing at all. It was tender and romantic, and the mood lasted all night and well into the next day. The only thing that finally got me out of bed was Eph whining to go out.
I was trying to bring Sue breakfast in bed, but before I could assemble the tray Eph managed to get her up, too-by dropping a turtle on her stomach. I never knew my dog had such an obsession with turtles. But as Sue pointed out at least she was willing to share.
So we lounged around naked in the sun on the back porch, eating and watching Eph questing for turtles, while Hippo and Mel (it was their turn to be out) did Zen cat things around the house. They had been indoor cats before Sue brought them out here, and they were having a blast. Sue told me about Hippo's reaction to her first step on grass, complete with sound effects from the movie 2001. She was so funny.
Then she started to tell me about her job interviews-Oh My God! I had no idea there was even such a thing as "witch school"! I mean, I guess I realized pagans had as much right to have kids as anybody, but I'd never really thought about how those kids would get educated. Sue's imitation of the high Priestess's version of higher math had me literally rolling on the floor. My week was nothing in comparison, but we could just talk and share everything that happened to us, no matter how trivial, and I really felt myself settling in; being with her felt more like home than any place I'd ever been. I couldn't believe I'd ever had second thoughts about her.
It was shaping up to be a perfect Saturday afternoon, and between the heat and the just-right breeze we both fell asleep. Not to mention we were both exhausted from the night before. We were out cold almost until sunset when the mosquitoes finally woke us up and drove us indoors and into some clothing.
I was a little sunburned in certain places, and Sue was quite pink, but fortunately the umbrella had absorbed most of the afternoon's rays. Still, we had fun putting aloe on each other.
We cooked and ate; it's funny how sometimes the simplest things-just doing dishes, for example-can feel so good when you're doing them with someone you love. We didn't feel the need to talk much, beyond the skin-to-skin level.
It was almost dark in a summery dusky sort of way when I heard something like a cat sound from the yard-which was kinda surprising because we'd shoe-horned Sue's cats back into the room and were waiting a few minutes before releasing Sweet and Low.
"What was that?"
"What was what?"
"A-that. Hear it?"
"I heard something."
When we tracked it down, we found the source of the noise-a tiny kitten was mewing on the back porch.
"Where the heck did you come from?" It scurried back to the shrubbery at the sound of my voice, so we moved back.
"Oh, gosh, it's probably abandoned. Probably dropped off while I was out. You wouldn't believe how many people have dumped their unwanted pets here over the years."
Sue propped the door open and motioned me stand back while the kitten flowed like water around the edge of the screen and peeked in, waving it's head from side to side to catch the scents in the kitchen. It was mostly black with white cheeks and a dot of white on the chest, and the longest whiskers I'd ever seen.
"Oh, I guess they think it's a farm or something, and just the place to leave a poor defenseless animal. When my Grandfather was alive we had barn cats. It was a job to get them all spayed and neutered, I can tell you-then we had a feline leukemia epidemic, before we could get them all vaccinated, and eventually the colony died out. Sweet and Low were from the last batch of kittens that we found in time; we took the rest to a no-kill shelter and eventually they got adopted."
Sue had been getting out the wet food and making up a saucer as we watched the kitten edge in over the threshold with cautious curiosity. We kept still and slowly it stumbled into the kitchen. When it found the dish it launched right into it like it was starving-which it probably was.
"What should we do? Try to catch it?"
"No, we don't want to frighten it…let's wait and see what happens."
The kitten chowed down like there was no tomorrow, while we watched. When it was done, we let it wander around sniffing at everything, until eventually it went back out.
"We'll try putting food out again tomorrow and see if it gets more tame," Sue said.
We sat around talking about various things-I told some "bad client" stories, she told me the highlights of the dining room excavation. Eventually we went to bed, made love, and crashed once more.
I don't usually remember my dreams, but this one I did. We were out in a desert somewhere, Sue and I. We'd been hiking, I guess, and although the landscape seemed vaguely familiar, it was nowhere I'd ever been in reality. There were low gentle hills, covered with shaggy vegetation, and big boulders of some kind of crumbly red rock. We kept walking and there was a valley, a deeper place in the landscape where there was a stream, it too lined with red rocks. The water flowing in it was also red, and Sue commented on it. Then there was something pursuing us, something hunting us, and we had to run and then hide, run and hide, over and over again. Now we were in a building, with endless bland green corridors, a school. A group of strange-looking teenage boys were coming toward us, threatening Sue; I told then off and they vanished. We were headed for the principal's office, which was somehow also both Sue's office, and a giant terrarium, when I woke up.
"Whew! What a strange dream!" It was just dawn, barely light out, with that rosy glow that goes first golden and then yellow before turning into regular daylight. Sue had woken at the same moment beside me, and we were both starting our periods.
"I'll say. I dreamt you saved me from rabid Christian fundamentalists who were chasing us through Arizona." Sue laughed.
"Is THAT who they were? I thought maybe they were aliens."
Well, we shared our dreams and discovered we had both had pretty much the same one-details, points of view were different, but they were substantially the same, right down to the shape of the rocks Sue drew for me later.
"Weird." I couldn't get over it. I'd never done that before.
"The synchronized bleeding, or the dreams?" Sue asked as we started cleaning up.
"The dreams. The period thing-well, try working with an all-female crew and see what happens."
"So not pretty-scary, even. In fact, are you sure you can't find some emergency repair that has to be done this week? When Char's on the rag things can be very ugly, particularly if the client is pissy."
Sue laughed and said she was sure something would come up. And wasn't it much more important to tame kittens and get in a lot of quality napping?
In the end I did stay until Wednesday. I'd forgotten how much easier the cramps are when I have great sex-and frequent backrubs. Sue was good, though. She didn't lounge around in bed on Monday. She groaned at first, it's true, and spent a couple of hours doing quiet, studious resume-related things, but by mid morning she was hard at it, moving along more of the stuff from the dining room.
"Wow, your Gram had a lot of stuff." I commented as she handed me another box to carry out to the truck for the thrift shop.
"Yeah, she sure did. Did you find my ulterior motives out yet?"
"Good point. I meant candlelight didn't show how much was left in the corners."
I laughed. "No, but I'm still amazed at how much you've done. I didn't even know this room was here before."
We were so dusty and hot by the late afternoon that Sue insisted we had to go to the beach. I was worried about a bathing suit, but she knew a place we could either skinny-dip or just do underwear, on the way back from dropping off our load. God, that salt water felt good. And the sun, while still hot, was no longer blazing. We didn't take a long time, just long enough to swim and dry off, but I felt so much better. I couldn't believe how much more fun everything was when I did it with her. I never wanted to leave.
Which was what I told Char when I eventually answered her angry phone message, responding to the one I'd left her. She growled some, and said how much she hated people who were in love, especially when she had deadlines, but I managed not to say anything unforgivable and promised to give her more hours at the end of the week. I managed to get in 35 hours in 3 days, the framing was done on schedule, and no one got hurt.
I was a wreck, though. I drove to Sue's in a tired fog, getting in at midnight. She hardly even woke up. And I was still a zombie then next day, so she gave up on me and we just went to the beach again. Eph came too; Sue made a little doggy cabana with some towels and bits of driftwood. It gave her enough shade for the hole she'd dug down to the cool damp sand and her water bowl too. Sue did everything but put sunscreen on her nose. Eph did look really cute; we put a pair of sunglasses on her muzzle while she was sleeping, and took pictures with the disposable camera Sue picked up. Did I mention my girlfriend actually bought me a bathing suit? And I liked it? It wasn't too girly, just some kind of stretchy shorts and a top. I didn't feel like I was going to fall out of it every second and I didn't feel like it was going to pull my shoulders half-way down my chest, either.
You know what? Eph also turned out to be helpful with peace-making in the cat wars. They were all fascinated by her tail, and tried to bat it as she went by. We were starting to let them interact some, standing by with a spray bottle filled with water to break up the fights, but the dog was an even better distraction. Even the feral kitten, who was getting bolder by the day, liked it. I'd given Eph the summer cut, but she still had plenty of hair, and although she knew something was going on back there she didn't really seem to mind.
It was hard to go back to work again Monday, but I'd promised. Eventually I got some time to talk to Char privately. She agreed to come up to Sue's and look at the job there over the following weekend. Appropriately enough, that was Labor Day, a holiday even Char had to take.
Sue thought a barbecue would be a good way to meet them, and invited Char's partner Kate as well. So it was already turning into a social occasion when Shirley and the boys wanted to come over too. Then Jane was complaining about not having met Sue yet, and hinting for an invite, so I called and asked if it would be all right to ask her too. She said it would be fine if I'd get there a day early to help clean up, so I promised… Ugh. I had no idea what Sue thought was appropriate pre-party cleaning. Things got a little tense, but we got through it.
Char was really good about the house, explained the order things needed to be done in, and thought up a couple of alternate plans and estimates to fix the most crucial things. I chatted with Kate and Jane while they went over the house. Kate is a therapist, and a darn good one. Even though I wasn't a client she reduced me to tears inside of 5 minutes with about two questions. I don't know how she did that. One minute I was telling her about Dodo, and the next I was weeping into a paper napkin, while Jane rubbed my back sympathetically. I guess I was more attached to Dodo, and more affected by her death, than I'd realized.
Then Shirley arrived and we played with the boys and the dogs while she went to talk about plans with her sister and Char.
Sue seemed a bit subdued when they got back, but it was time to get food on the grill so I didn't have a chance to talk to her until we were clearing plates and getting out dessert. We were in the kitchen, and I asked how the estimates went.
"What do you think of my friends?"
"I… I like them."
I could hear some insincerity there, but decided to let it ride. There wasn't time right then, and I figured we had all weekend to go over things.
After the meal Shirley and I were doing the clean-up, and I could see Kate and Sue talking from my spot at the kitchen window. Whatever was being said took a more serious turn, I guess, because they disappeared around the side of the house. But I couldn't follow, because at that point Shirley got my attention, and then when we went back outside guitars had appeared.
I kept wondering where Sue was, but then Kate returned by herself and gave me brief nod, saying Sue needed me in the kitchen.
When I got there I could see she'd been crying.
"Hon, what's the matter?"
"Don't give me that. Is the house news bad? Do you want another contractor?"
"No, No, I-Char's fine, she's great. I can see why you like working for her."
"Did Kate say something?"
"Yeah, well, yeah, she did."
I waited. She was sorta hunched together, not really making eye contact, and much as I wanted to hold her, I knew she needed to get something out, and didn't quite want to end what she was going to say.
"Sarah, I know this is silly, but I saw you and Jane from the kitchen window."
"Huh? What about Jane?"
"She had her hand on your back."
"Oh. Well, Kate had just reduced me to tears, she was just trying to get me to stop."
"Kate reduced YOU to tears?" I had Sue's full attention now, and she was really there, looking at me, not lost in the fog.
"Yeah, I don't know how she did it, she just said, 'what was your mother like,' asked about Dodo, and I lost it."
"Okay, that makes sense, now I get it-I think."
"What she said about you. Well, both of us. She got some tears out of me too. She said I was depressed, which I knew already. Then she said you were depressed too, and recommended we go to grief counseling together."
She eyed me. "I'm sorry I got jealous. It's just that Jane sees you all week and I only get the weekend. There's never enough time, by the time we get caught up you have to leave again. And it's you I want to be with."
"Me too, hon. I can see it's not working the way things are."
"So what about therapy? Would you go with me?"
"Of course I will. I… You know my mom was an alcoholic?"
"Yeah, you did mention something about that. Why?"
Voices and music drifted back from the porch, singing blending with the boys' laughter as they played with our dogs. Mellow dusk settled in the room. Sue lit a candle and put it on the table between us.
"Well, something Kate said about my mom's disease. She did sober up eventually, but I was grown up by then. When I was a teen we either battled all the time, or she was passed out. I brought my girlfriends home all the time, and she never even noticed us. Once we almost burned the house down, and even that didn't get her attention."
"Wow." Sue commented quietly.
"I didn't move out until I had an affair with my boss at the cleaning service. She was a lot older than me, and kinda took mom's place. I lived with her for quite a while even after we stopped sleeping together. But the point is, Kate thought I bonded so intensely with Dodo because my own mother was mostly unavailable. So when she died it brought up a lot for me."
"Uhm. That makes a lot of sense. You know what else she said to me?"
"That as two adult children of alcoholics we didn't have the models for a successful marriage, and if we didn't want to be a co-dependant mess we needed to go to therapy to learn how to make a relationship work."
"Ouch. What did you say to that?"
"I said we worked just fine."
"Most of the time. But you really scared me when you yelled at me that time," I told her bluntly. "I don't want to be the butt of your anger at your sister, or your cousin, or anyone else. And I don't want to just go to work and shut you out with the noise of the table saw, either."
"That's-humm. I never really thought about it like that."
"You get real mad, hon. It's scary."
"Well, I don't know, I just blow up and then it's over. Isn't it?"
"I don't like never knowing when. Or why. And when it happens I want to fix it."
Understanding dawned on Sue's face. She looked at me and said, "Bingo." Then she realized what it meant, looked me in the eye, and said ruefully, "Aw, shit."
"Aw shit is right."
We held a long moment of serious eye contact. "I hate it when therapists are right, don't you?" The look on her face when she said that-I just had to laugh.
"Yeah, I sure do," I agreed.
Brad ran under the kitchen windows just then, yelling like a siren. "It's good thing we don't have any close neighbors," Sue commented dryly.
"Yeah, well, you never know, they might have noisy kids of their own if you did."
"True. So do you think therapy will help?"
"I don't know. But I hope so. I'm willing to give it a go. So, okay?"
"Us?" She gave me another assessing look.
"Uh-huh. I'm good."
"Nah. You're beautiful. Come on, sweetheart; let's go back to the party. I think we've done enough angst for one conversation."
I put my arm around her and we went back out. Citronella candles lit the back yard, and Char was playing a mean guitar, matched by Jane's mandolin and Kate's voice. Shirley had a pretty nice voice herself. Sue sat on my lap again, sometimes singing, sometimes just listening. She and Shirley sang a couple of things together, and I really saw them as sisters, suddenly: Shirl bossing Sue around, but never ceasing to look out for her; Sue a strong woman in her own right, but always knowing there was someone ahead of her.
Eventually the dogs and kids wound down; Artie collapsed at Jane's feet, and Eph curled up in an empty chair, while Connor passed out on Shirley's lap. Brad looked up at me from the steps where he was nearly asleep against the railing.
"Are you, like, my aunt?"
"Um, sorta I guess." I snuck a look at the sisters and read 'yes' on both faces. "Uh, that would be a yeah. Why?"
"If you're my aunt could you teach me how to use your tools?"
"Well, my shop isn't really close by, sweetie. But maybe when you are a little older, yeah."
"You could put your shop in the barn," he said hopefully.
"What?" Sue asked, startled.
"Aunt Sarah could put her shop in the barn. Then she wouldn't have to go so far. And I could help." He explained patiently.
"Um, Brad-" I didn't want him getting his hopes up.
"No, that's a fu-er, perfectly brilliant idea, Brad. That's exactly what she should do. It needs a lot of cleaning out, and I hadn't figured on getting there until the house was in better shape, but that's exactly what you need, Sarah."
"The kid's right," Char chimed in. "Lot of work could get done in there with a little remodeling. "
Jane agreed, and described exactly how Char's 22-footer would be able to make the turn to load and unload. She wasn't taking the state of the road into account, but it was late.
They sat there half-joking, half seriously planning how to turn the barn into the new center of K.C. Construction and I just sat there with my mouth open. Music was forgotten while everything got mapped out. When they got to the words "rental income" Sue called a halt.
"Just wait a minute," she said. "You guys are going a little too fast for me. Let me think about it, talk the whole thing over with my girlfriend here, and get back to you."
They agreed and the evening broke up after that; it was certainly getting late, and Shirley decided she and the boys would stay over rather than try to go home. I was sure ready to crash after the way emotions had been flying earlier in the day, so I went up to our room while Sue helped put her nephews to bed. I could hear low, earnest conversation between the sisters, but I didn't have the energy to join them. Much much later I was half-aware of Sue coming in, kissing me on the ear, and settling in. It felt good.
We went to the beach the next day, all three of us adults and the two boys. We swam and sunned and swam and sunned, eating tuna sandwiches and cherries and frozen grapes. I was right about sandcastles, and I don't mind admitting I had just as much fun as the kids did. After lunch they had a blast with their boogie boards and we napped in rotation while keeping an eye on them. Between the sun and the water I felt like I'd been turned to liquid and poured out. There wasn't a tense part of my body left. I could hardly drive home. Finally we all ate dinner together and then Shirley took the kids home.
We sat back down at the kitchen table, lit the candle again. It felt very intimate and right, winding out the end of the day together.
"Hon, what do you think about the barn idea?" Sue asked.
"As a work space?" She nodded. "I'd absolutely love it. But are you sure?"
"Well, not about having the whole Construction Company using it every day. I can see how you guys work, even from this distance. And I'm not sure I could live with that much activity-but you? Yes. I think it's a brilliant idea."
"It would really make it possible for me to give up my other place. Which reminds me. How about your job prospects?"
"Well, I decided I just wasn't ready to teach junior witches. My theory is that instead of applying for a full-time position in one school I'll sub. That way I can work as much or as little as I need to, and get the feel of several different ones. It'll give me time to work here on the house, adjust to the new community and all."
"Sounds good. Is there enough work, subbing like that?"
"Oh yeah." She yawned. "You know what?"
"We haven't heard any hissing tonight."
"Is everyone loose?"
"Yup. Even Domino." (That was what Connor had named the new kitten.) "He came in a little while ago. I wonder where he wandered off to? I've gotta pee, I'll see if I can find him."
A few moments later she came tip-toeing back, and said in low voice, "C'mere. You've just got to see this."
She dragged me up to the boys' bedroom. Sweet didn't even look up from the living room couch as we passed. Upstairs, Hippo was curled up asleep in the very center of Brad's pillow. And curled up on top of the very center of Hippo, like a cherry on top of a sundae, was Domino.
"Awww, how cute."
Well, that turned out to be the end of the cat wars. Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazon kitties, ruled the territory after that, with barely a murmur out of Sweet. Domino worshipped his new mom, although she got a bit testy when he tried to nurse. Mel would wrestle with him sometimes, but they kept the claws in.
We cleaned out the barn. Well, part of the barn. I found a rare old Stanley plane, and some other valuable things, which Sue sold it for enough money to cover at least part of the roof repairs. We went to therapy with someone Kate recommended. I think it might be helping.
It's weird, though, this 'new shop in the barn' thing. Well, it's not the whole barn, there was just too much stuff, and we just shoved a lot of it back in a corner for sorting out later. But between the little workshop room and the bigger area that Jane helped me close in with some temporary stud walls it's still bigger than my old garage. We poured a concrete floor, and I started bringing stuff over. It took way longer than I'd ever imagined, even w/ the gals from work helping in their spare time.
Finally I got down to the last load, and I couldn't believe how sorry I was to say goodbye to my old place. It was kind of, well, unsettling. Sure, I'll miss being right next to Jane, but that's not it. She went on ahead with her load, and I found a few more last odds and ends, put them in my truck, and swept up. I kept lingering, not quite wanting to leave. I felt numb, like I wasn't really awake. I maintained this dazed condition through the whole drive up. Don't ask me how I got there in one piece.
I made the turn into the driveway and it finally hit me: I'm going to have to give up 'me' and be half of 'us'. Fuck, I'm not sure I can do that. I just stopped the truck and sat there in the road for about 15 minutes. Can I really do this? Put my livelihood at the mercy of someone else? I don't have a lease. What if things go sour between us? We could break up and I'd lose everything, like that friend of Jane's who crashed at her place for months a few winters back. Can I trust Sue not to kick me out in the middle of a big stressful job? Can I trust myself not to fuck things up? I could feel my jaw turning to rock.
"Okay, girl, lets not hyperventilate here," I cautioned myself. I thought about the good parts. "Chicken out now, and you give all that up. That what you want, Sarah?" The answer screamed right back at me: "Fuck, no!"
I gave myself a little pep talk, right there in the driveway next to the graveyard. "You can do this relationship thing. You promised Sue-heck, you promised Dodo you'd look after her. God, Dodo. She's gotta still be around somewhere, looking out for both of us. I hope it's enough."
I wiped away the tears-some for Dodo, some just anticipatory self-pity, I guess, and started the engine back up.
I pulled into the yard, and I thought things looked a little funny, but I couldn't place it-later I realized there were way too many tire tracks for Sue's Honda. Except for Hippo, dozing in the sun on the front stoop, nobody seemed to be around at all, which was weird. Oh well. I backed the truck up to the barn and got out. There wasn't a sound until I grabbed the handle and slid the door back.
"SURPRISE!" About thirty women yelled at once. My new shop was full of people. What the heck? My birthday was in February.
Before I had a chance to pick up my jaw Sue was in my arms. "They said you couldn't move into a new shop without a christening party first. I hope you don't mind."
"Mind? Heck, no." I looked around-I couldn't believe it. While I'd been back at my old place getting the last load and feeling sorry for myself they had unpacked my boxes, brought in a bunch of cabinets and set up a rack for lumber. Except for the planer, the joiner, and the table saw, which were pushed to one side leaving a big clear space in the center, everything was in place. At one end there were some speakers and mics and instruments, so it looked like they were planning to play some music. There was a clean sheet of plywood over the workbench, which was spread with plastic tablecloths and filled with food, and a bathtub full of ice and drinks in the corner.
"What do you think?" Char asked.
"God, it's-it's perfect. How-how did you know where I wanted things?"
"Oh, come on, Sarah, you've only been talking about it for weeks. We just didn't want to listen to you daydreaming about the place any more," Jane kidded me.
Everybody laughed, and Kate said-"Okay, enough chitchat. Let's party!"
Char and Jane and a couple of the others went up to the impromptu stage and began tuning up. Sue dragged me over to the table and began handing me little bits of food. Nothing big that would stick in my throat or stuff me; just enough to settle that fluttery feeling. She really does know my metabolism, I'll grant you that. I looked around and saw that not only was everyone from work there, and all their partners, but so were Shirl and the kids.
When the music started, everybody stood around looking at me, and I couldn't figure out why, until Sue dragged me by the hand to the center of the floor.
"Come on, sweetie. It's your place-you have to be the first one to dance in it," Sue explained.
"Not without you. May I-May I have this dance?"
"This one and any other dance you want to do," she said.
The gals started to play something with a beat, improvising around, slapping the body of the bass in lieu of drums, setting up an irresistible rhythm. Sue gave me one of those slow, sexy smiles. We started to move together and I could feel the magic between us. I dipped her, I spun her; she followed every move. She told me with her eyes where she wanted to be and I led her where she wanted me to take her: together, apart; together, apart; until the space between us was charged with a palpable energy as alive as the touch we shared. It was like there was no one there but us. I don't know how long it went on, but suddenly I heard the rest of the room clapping. Then the strings picked up again, and Char and Kate were out there with us, then other couples, until the floor was full.
When we were totally out of breath we spun off to the sidelines, got some water, and went outside to cool off.
"So, Sarah. Do you like it?"
"The space, or the party?" I asked, smiling at her.
"Yes to both. I love you. You always know how to make me feel at home." I kissed her, lightly, a gentle acknowledgement.
"So you feel at home here?" her hands were turning the back of my neck to fire.
"Yeah. I sure do."
"Good. Dodo would be proud."
"She would, wouldn't she?"
"Yes. And she loved a good party." Sue looked up at the stars coming out and I knew she was thinking we were very blessed, because that was what I was thinking too. Then we went back inside to be with our friends.
Shirl took the kids home before their bedtime had been too long passed. Still, we danced with both boys and Sue and her sister goofed around on the dance floor together like they were kids again. It was fun to see them playful and relaxed after all the grief and angst they'd had to carry in previous months.
The party went on until all hours, but we ducked out before it really began to wind down. Sue knew that Char and Kate would keep an eye on things and make sure no one drove who shouldn't, and that some form of clean up occurred. I had no doubt we'd be sharing our morning coffee with quite a few of the stragglers-provided we had it late enough the next day.
But we went up to bed so Sue could welcome me home in a more personal way, and I have to say, she was very thorough about it. If I didn't know how well loved I was after that, I never would.
That's all for now, folks.