The further from camp Robin got, the more she relaxed. The river was seldom more than thigh deep and she waded along, emptying her mind of her family's expectations and loving exhortations. Sometimes she wished she had a family that lived in denial of her sexuality. She knew her life would be worse if they did, but it grew tiresome at times. They all wanted her to find a new lover and they all had their own ideas about how and where she should start looking. All of her siblings were still in their first marriages and had at least one child. Robin thought they were slightly offended that she had dared to leave Tammy and ruin the family's perfect record. Except for her mother, and possibly her brother Bruce, none of them really understood how intolerable the relationship had become.
Robin didn't know what had changed for Tammy after 11 years together, but it seemed that she had woken up cranky and vituperative one day and had never gotten over it. Robin had not been able to do anything right or make her smile or earn a kind word regardless of her efforts for over a year. While she couldn't figure out what she had done to deserve it, she couldn't shake the nagging feeling that it had somehow been her fault.
The final straw had been on their twelfth anniversary. Robin was at the edge of her ability to cope, but they had been together for a long time and she wanted to make one last effort to get through to her. She had purchased a lovely diamond pendant for Tammy and taken the afternoon off work to create a special candlelight dinner. She hoped that her effort would be seen and appreciated, but she ended up eating alone.
Tammy had come home near midnight, drunk. By then, Robin had gone through the entire house and packed up everything that she really cared about and needed. It was all in her car waiting for her and she was resigned to leaving everything else-all of the furniture and books and knick-knacks-behind. She had removed everything that was irreplaceable to her and was sitting at the table with the congealed remnants of their anniversary dinner when Tammy staggered in and asked: "What the hell are you doing?"
"Celebrating our twelfth anniversary."
It was over for Robin in that single moment. "That's exactly what I've been asking myself for the last 4 hours," she said tiredly. She stood, picked up a small key ring and held it out to Tammy. "These are the keys to your car and this apartment. I would like my car keys back now."
"What?" Tammy looked utterly confused.
"Please give me the keys to my car." She took Tammy's keys from her hand, quickly removed what she wanted and handed the rest back.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm leaving, Tammy." She watched the familiar features of a total stranger taking it all in. "You don't love me and I can't bear to be around you anymore. I don't know what I did-if I did anything at all-but it's over between us. All the bills are paid. I've got everything I want. You can have everything else."
Tammy looked drunk, but she seemed to be unaffected. "Okay, then. Bye," she added as an afterthought.
Robin had left quietly and checked into a motel for the night. Tammy's apathy had broken something inside of her and she had cried until she was sick. She had the resources to find another apartment right away, but her mother had begged her to come home and she had ended up in her childhood bedroom. It had been four months and she was still in the process of healing.
If not for her job as the assistant manager for the local franchise of a chain supermarket, she likely would have become a total hermit. Her family and friends had been after her to start living again, but she was tormented by the fact that she didn't know what had happened between Tammy and herself. She worried that if she didn't understand, she would be doomed to repeat the past.
The annual family camping trip had come around and Robin had looked forward to it in hopes that it would allow her an opportunity to reconnect with herself. Today was the first chance she'd had to get away from her family and begin to search for inner balance and harmony. With each step she let go of the cliché advice her family had been heaping on her: There are plenty of fish in the sea? Love will be waiting when you least expect it?There's a woman out there right now looking for you? You've got to get back on the horse?It's not good for you to be alone. The list went on and on. She knew they just wanted her to be happy, but there were so many of them and only one of her and it had become relentless.
Robin had thrown leftovers from 2 days of camping in her daypack along with water, beer, a towel, sunscreen and binoculars and started walking. Before coming on the camping trip she had studied a map of the area so she knew that theirs was the last campground on the river and the rest of the still undeveloped area was owned by the state's Power Company. The chance that she would run into another human being was extremely remote. With that in mind, she had indulged in the warmth of the day at the first opportunity and stripped down to just her sneakers. She knew that it was still a risk, but if she ran into someone with nefarious intentions, shorts and a T-shirt weren't likely to protect her and perhaps her vulnerability would make her more likely to run before it was too late.
It was impossible at first to avoid feeling as if she were being watched, but over time it faded and she was able to enjoy the sensuality of wind, water and sun on bare skin. With no destination in mind and no time frame, Robin meandered and allowed herself to be distracted by every little thing. She investigated wildflowers and took the time to creep up on a lizard until she was able to touch its tail before it darted away. With her binoculars she was able to watch a red-tailed hawk cruising for a meal and tiny songbirds flitting busily through the trees. She watched two blue jays for almost 10 minutes as they sat back on their tail feathers and fought with their feet. One of them finally captured the other by its beak and calmly held it off. Robin laughed so hard it scared them away.
The boundaries of flesh seemed to expand and she became hyper aware of the life and beauty that surrounded her. This was what she had been hoping for. This was what she needed.
She was standing in the middle of the small river watching a jackrabbit nervously eating roots when something bumped into her knee. She looked down in surprise and made a grab for the tennis shoe that was floating past. She stood staring at it, not quite understanding what it was doing here, and saw something with blue and white stripes floating off to her left. Without thinking about it, she chased it down.
She held someone's shorts in her hand. Together with the shoe, she realized that someone was upriver from her. Robin crouched to make herself small and looked around nervously. Unless someone was in the trees, she appeared to be alone. The shoe was a woman's shoe, size 8, and the shorts were feminine in cut. A flash of white in the water drew her and she held up a dripping sock.
Robin reasoned that there was a woman upstream who had somehow lost her clothes in the current. Whether or not she was alone she didn't know. She debated with herself for several minutes, then decided to continue her trek slowly and cautiously. She kept her eyes open for more clothing and for the owner, but didn't see anything for almost 15 minutes.
A sports bra had snagged on a branch and was lazily surfing the current until Robin untangled it. It occurred to her that none of the articles she had found so far belonged to a man and that there was a woman ahead of her who was probably as naked as she was. Robin relaxed a bit and couldn't help grinning as she walked. She listened for voices and studied the surrounding terrain carefully, but she expected to find a single person. She located the other sock and a pair of simple cotton underwear before stepping around a rock face and spotted a woman sunning herself on a large flat rock in mid-stream.
Robin ducked back and began searching the landscape for other people. With her binoculars she was able to determine that the woman was currently alone. She turned the glasses on the woman and studied her. It had been a long time since Robin had seen a naked woman. While it didn't make her feel particularly sexual she couldn't stop looking and an awareness began to surface in her own body.
The woman was blond and slender, but generous in breast and hip. Combined with the fineness of her features, Robin thought she pretty much defined the word voluptuous. It made her feel clumsy and gaunt in comparison. About the best she could say of her body was that she was fit and strong. She tried to imagine how the blond would feel against her and suddenly realized what she was doing.
I'm such a pervert! Spying on a woman with binoculars and thinking about sex! She angrily shoved the glasses into her pack and rolled the clothes into the shorts to keep them together. She doesn't look aware that she's lost these and there's no telling how far she is from her camp. She could be in real trouble without them. She's only got one shoe left and that won't get her far.
Putting herself in the blonde's shoes, figuratively, she decided not to get dressed before approaching. She hoped that seeing a naked woman would lessen the surprise that she was no longer alone. Robin walked out to the middle of the river and began to walk towards her.
She began to call out almost immediately, but there was no response. She called again from about 10 yards away. "Hello!"
The woman sat up in panic and tried to cover herself. Her last shoe fell into the current and Robin moved to intercept it. Just as she lunged and felt her hand close on it, her foot slipped and the river tumbled her over and over. Getting her feet under her again, Robin stood up with a laugh and flung her shoulder-length hair back. She still had all of the clothes and the shoe that had precipitated her submersion in her hands and she held them up triumphantly. The blond glanced around her and seemed to realize that she had lost everything. She visibly relaxed as Robin made her way back to the rock, though she did search the landscape for more people.
"Don't worry, I'm alone," Robin laughed. "I was wading downstream a ways and started running into clothes. I thought whoever lost them might need them back." She set the bundled clothes on the rock. "I believe these are yours?"
The woman brushed her long hair back over her shoulder and began to unfold herself. "I didn't realize I had lost them. Thank you."
Her voice was smooth as glass, but rich as honey and Robin felt her heart beat a little faster. She was quite lovely up close and her eyes were a charming shade of blue. Her knees began to knock underwater. "You're welcome."
"So, tell me," the blond said with amusement. "Is there someone downstream gathering up your clothing as well?"
Robin felt a blush coming on and she tried to cover it with a laugh. "No. It's all in my backpack."
"They're probably wet now, too."
Robin slipped her arm out of a strap and swung the soggy pack around to set it on the rock. She unzipped it and laughed. "Looks like we're in the same boat."
The blond gathered up her things and slid into the water. "Come on," she said over her shoulder. "We can lay everything out to dry in the sun."
Robin followed her, guiltily enjoying the view from behind and set her pack on the sand. She hung her clothing out on nearby branches and returned to assess any water damage to the other contents of her pack. "Thank God for Tupperware and Ziploc."
The blond knelt next to her curiously. "What else have you got in there?"
"Lunch, beer, water, binoculars and sunscreen. Don't you have anything? Or did I just not find it downstream?"
"I'm only about 30 minutes from camp, though I expect it would have seemed longer if I'd had to make my way back naked and shoeless. Thanks for rescuing me."
"No problem," Robin shrugged casually. "Would you like a beer?"
The woman accepted a can. "I usually make a point of not drinking with strangers."
She held out her hand. "Robin."
Robin tried not to think about the warmth of the hand she held. "Merrill?"
Maryl spelled her name and let go of her hand. "My mother wanted me to be named Mariel, but the nurse didn't know how to spell it. Hence, Mary-l."
Robin grinned as she popped the tab on her own beer. "Your name is a typo?"
Maryl tucked her hair behind one ear. "Sometimes it's the simple things that throw you for a loop."
Robin was enchanted and she used dumping the water out of her pack and putting the food back in it to give herself a slight breather. She pushed it into a shady spot and sat down in the sand. "So, what brings you out on the river today?" She admired Maryl's legs as she stretched them out on the sand and relaxed back on her hands. Robin's peripheral vision was focused on the blonde thatch where the slender legs came together and she felt ashamed for noticing.
"I'm on a week long getaway. There are seven of us-all women."
"Are you co-workers?"
"No." Maryl glanced at her and took a long drink of beer. "It's kind of a?support group. I'm the newest member and I don't seem to be fitting in very well. After three days of talking non-stop about grief and loss, I just needed to get away for a while."
"Grief and loss?" Robin shook her head with a rueful grin. "Sounds like my life of late." She had noticed that Maryl was watching her surreptitiously and decided abruptly to cut to the chase. "Do they accept lesbians?" She held her breath as she waited for a reaction.
Maryl's eyebrow arched dramatically. "We are lesbians. What are the odds, eh?"
Robin smiled in relief. "That 2 naked lesbians with broken hearts would meet on a river in the middle of nowhere? Astronomical, I guess, though I think I remember hearing a joke that started like this once."
"Let's make a pact." Maryl's eyes were twinkling. "Let's not talk about ex's or broken hearts or sad things. Let's just leave all that far away and enjoy this lovely day."
"Well, gee," Robin chuckled. "Whatever will we talk about?"
"We don't have to talk about anything. We can just sit here and get drunk."
"I only brought three," Robin said with regret.
"Then we'll pretend to be drunk. Work with me, Robin. Work with me."
Robin laughed at her dramatic gestures. "Okay. Do you do this sort of thing often?"
"Drink beer? Now and then."
"No. Drape yourself on a rock and kick your clothes in the river to see who comes calling."
Maryl pushed at Robin's shoulder. "It seemed like it was isolated enough that I could try it. I've never been camping before and skinny dipping seemed like part of the whole experience."
Robin grinned. "It's only skinny-dippin' if you do it at night."
"What's it called in the daytime?"
"Ha!" Maryl acted as if she were just getting a really bad joke. "Ha! You're killing me!" She laughed and flipped her hair back in a totally unconscious gesture. "What kind of work do you do?"
"I'm the assistant manager of a supermarket."
Robin scrunched her face up. "Ranks right up there with making gravel by hand."
"You don't like it?"
"No, I do like it; it's interesting and challenging. But I wouldn't exactly call it exciting." She pulled one knee up and wrapped her arm around it. "What about you?"
"I'm a bookkeeper slash receptionist in a medical office." She shrugged. "I guess it ranks pretty close to what you do in terms of excitement, but it keeps me busy and it pays the bills."
Robin wanted to know everything about this woman and she searched for something to talk about just so she could hear her voice. "What did you want to be when you grew up? When you were a kid, I mean."
"Truth?" Maryl sighed and stared off across the water. "I wanted to be a dancer when I was small, but then I decided I wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic. I used to have an old Instamatic camera-it was broken-and I wandered around taking pictures all the time. It drove my family nuts having me clicking and winding away at them so I started taking pictures of scenery. I pretended I was on adventure in Africa and Thailand and Antarctica. Anywhere, really. Our dog, Freckles, was alternately a lion or a polar bear-whatever I happened to need at the time. My family thought I was terribly neurotic." Maryl smiled. "Turns out they may have been right. At least from their point of view." She laughed at herself. "What did you dream about?"
Robin rested her chin on her knee. "A little bit of everything I suppose. I didn't have a single dream like you. I wanted to be an astronaut and a cowboy and a scientist depending on what day it was. I thought about being a tennis player for awhile. I remember watching Billie Jean King when I was little and she impressed me. But my athletic skills are pretty pathetic so I went into management."
"Well, if you can't be what you want, be in charge. Sounds like a good motto. Maybe you should put it on a T-shirt and market it."
Robin finished her beer with a smile and tossed the empty can in the neighborhood of her pack. Beer always went straight to her bladder and now was no exception. With no other convenient options, she stood up and waded into the water. Facing upstream, she crouched down and used her hands to wash sand off her butt. Resting her elbows on her knees, she saw Maryl watching her curiously. "Don't watch."
"I can't do it if you're watching. I hardly know you."
Maryl's eyes opened wide. "You're doing it in the river?"
"Do you have a better idea?"
Maryl looked around quickly. "I guess not." She stood up and began making her way carefully into the water.
"What are you doing?"
"I have to go, too."
Robin pointed at her feet. "You should put your shoes on. It saves your feet."
Maryl got back out to get her shoes and waded back in. By the time she crouched a few feet away, Robin was done and she watched Maryl's eyes close in relief. "You haven't been camping before, have you?"
"Nope," Maryl said easily. "And I've got to tell you, the whole sleeping on the ground thing is completely overrated. I wake up feeling like I've been beaten with sticks. And I hate the sleeping bags. You can't even move in them. It's like being tied up in a blanket."
"You've got one of those survival type mummy bags, don't you?"
"The clerk said it was good to 20 below zero."
"But it only gets down to about 50 here."
Maryl glared. "You're a big help, Robin."
She couldn't help but laugh. "Come here. I'll show you something nice." She led Maryl to the rock she had been sunning on and braced herself on the upstream side. Putting her feet on the rock, she stood up into the current and let it sluice over her. "Can you see what I'm doing?"
"Come on. It feels good."
It took Maryl several tries before she found her balance and stabilized in the current. Robin heard her sigh over the noise of the river and smiled. Maryl's hand touched hers and quickly latched on. Robin was more than content and they lay in the water's embrace for sometime in silence.
"It's like being in a waterfall," Maryl finally said loudly. "Not that I've ever been in one, but it's how I imagine it would be."
"I like how the water feels like separate threads. More like solid rain than anything else."
"How do you get out of it without being dashed against the rock?"
"Bend your knees and get your hands on it." Maryl's hand let go of hers and in moments she was pulling herself up to sit on the rock. Robin decided to show off a bit. She tipped her chin up and arched her back. Water gushed over her face and pushed her under. She reversed the motion smoothly and was pushed back to the surface. Finding the rhythm of the river she began to 'porpoise'. Her eldest brother had patiently taught her how to do this when she was young and it had been one of her favorite water sports once she got the hang of it. Breathing out slowly and grabbing fresh air every third or fourth time she surfaced, she continued to surf the current until she began to lose track of her surroundings. She crouched abruptly and let the water lift her up on the rock.
"That was amazing," Maryl said with awe. "You looked like a dolphin. It was beautiful."
Robin wiped her hair out of her eyes. "It's fun. You start to forget you're human if you do it long enough."
Maryl pulled her feet up on the rock and hugged her knees. "I'm glad you came along. It was nice before, too, but I feel safer and more relaxed with company."
Robin didn't know how to answer that without looking like a klutz. "Tell me about the people you're camping with."
"Well, it's not a therapy group. It's just some people who get together and have coffee. I've only been to four meetings. Eva is the leader, but she's not a therapist or anything. I get the impression she likes feeling like one, but she seems very responsible about not messing with people's heads. She's strong and confident and I kind of like her, but she's not very forthcoming about herself."
Robin turned around and stretched out on the rock. Caring more about the warmth than a tan, she turned on her belly and rested her face on her hands. Maryl followed suit as she continued to talk.
"Linda is?" Maryl snorted. "To be perfectly honest, I don't like her. I can't tell if she's incredibly bitter or just plain mean. She's bossy and controlling and she constantly challenges everyone. Whenever she really starts to pick on someone Eva steps in and puts a stop to it, but it's an ongoing battle and she just irritates me. Kirsten, on the other hand, is on the make."
Robin chuckled. Their elbows were touching and their eyes were locked. She felt completely drawn to this woman and the sound of her voice gave her goose bumps. She knew this sort of thing was possible, but it was so unlikely that she wasn't sure how to handle it.
"She has this way of moving," Maryl explained. "Like she's a cat rubbing up against your leg. It might be flattering if it weren't so relentless and indiscriminate."
"Has she put the move on you, too?"
"See, it's not really like that. It's not personal and she never does anything inappropriate, it's just like?an open invitation. I'm starting to think it's all an act though. If you actually responded to it, I think she'd back off. I think she uses it as a mask, but I don't know what she's protecting. Aside from that, she really quite nice."
Robin counted in her head. "That's three. What about the others?"
"Brooke is the youngest-I think she's 26-and she's very defensive. You have to be on constant guard with what you say because somehow everything is a judgement on her. She's totally self-absorbed and doesn't realize it. It's not that she's out of control, but she pops up at the strangest times and turns your words into a value judgement of her life. And she cries all the time. Sometimes I just want to shake her.
"Wendy is unbearably sweet, but she has Doormat printed on her forehead. She never has an opinion or an unkind word. I think she's been hurt pretty badly, but I suspect it started when she was young as opposed to a recent trauma. I think she needs to get into a real therapy group. Either that or she needs to take martial arts. Maybe that would boost her confidence. But she has a heart of gold and you just want to hug her and make everything all better for her. If she got the right kind of help I think she'd make someone a wonderful partner."
Maryl turned on her side and propped her head up on her hand. "I like Noreen. We don't have anything in common, but she's smart and witty. She tends to be very quiet and withdrawn, but it's not a helpless attitude. She chooses to be that way. I think if you want to be friends with her, you have to do all the work in establishing intimacy. I think she has all these walls you've got to climb over to get to her, but I suspect that if you're willing to do the work, she's probably the type of woman who would make an excellent partner."
"Are you interested in her?"
Maryl grinned. "No."
"Zero chemistry. I'm not sure she even has pheromones."
Robin wanted to ask if she had the pheromones Maryl was looking for, but she'd only met her an hour ago and she was afraid to be the only one feeling it.
"So," Maryl asked, "who are you camping with?"
"My family. This is our annual camping trip. We go someplace new every year."
"Tell me about them."
Robin smiled. "I'm the only girl and I'm number four out of five, but I'm twinned with number three."
Maryl blinked. "You're a twin?"
"Fraternal, of course. We look like siblings, not like duplicates. I'm closer to him emotionally than the others, but we weren't dressed alike as children or anything. He swears he always knows when I'm depressed or happy, but then, he's always been a little dramatic."
"What's his name?"
"Bruce." Robin watched Maryl figuring it out. "I know. Bruce Wayne. Batman. Batman and Robin."
"Your parents must have a good sense of humor."
"We were named after our grandparents. They swore it wasn't deliberate."
"What about your other brothers?"
"Eric, Julian and Trevor-in that order."
"Who else is at your camp?"
"My mom, my Uncle Gus-he's not really my uncle-he was my father's best friend and we sort of adopted him. All of my brothers are married so their wives are here. And then, Eric has two kids, Julian has three and Bruce and Trevor each have one."
Maryl's face was uncertain. "And your dad?"
"He died of cancer a few years ago. He went real quick so we didn't have to watch him suffer. He was a great guy."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
Robin didn't feel particularly grief stricken anymore. She had her moments, but this wasn't one of them. "What about your family?"
"All alive and well and living in North Carolina. I've got 2 older sisters and 3 nieces. My family doesn't seem prone to boys except through marriage."
"I've always wondered what it would be like to have a sister," Robin mused. "Someone to talk to and share things with."
Maryl laughed. "In my experience, there are moments like that, but it seems to be mostly bickering and fighting and competing. That's one of the main reasons I moved so far away. It can be fun in small doses and with a few stiff drinks, but as a way of life? Forget it."
"That's too bad. My family isn't like that at all."
"It's all in the parents," Maryl said cryptically. "I thought we weren't supposed to talk about anything depressing."
Robin smiled. "Okay. Where do you live now?"
"Edgewater. It's about two hours from here."
"Do you like it?"
"I love it," Maryl said happily. "It's clean and pretty and the people are simple without being stupid or ignorant."
"I live in Breining. The other direction."
"Do you like it?"
Robin shrugged. "I grew up there. It's familiar."
Maryl shook her head and tsked disapprovingly. "You don't love your job and you don't love your hometown. That's two strikes, Robin."
"What are you saying?" Robin felt herself beginning to bristle. "One more thing and I'll have to move? Are you always this bossy?"
"I'm not bossy," Maryl said lightly. "As the youngest child it's my job to be precocious and spoiled. I get to say whatever I want and you have to think it's cute."
"I see," Robin said with mock severity. "By any chance, does your daddy call you 'Princess'?"
Maryl frowned. "He calls me 'The Brat'."
"I defer to his judgement," Robin teased. There was nothing to grab onto as Maryl shoved her into the river. Robin let herself float to the surface and laughed as the current slowly carried her down river. She was forced to sit up when her ass began bumping along the river bottom and she dug her feet in to keep from going any further downstream. She couldn't quit grinning and she idly picked up rocks and skipped them along the surface while she tried to get her attraction under control.
I really like her. I feel comfortable and safe with her. I like how she looks and talks and smiles and I like that she makes fun of herself. It's odd that I should accidentally run into her here. It makes me wonder if there really is such a thing as fate. It's too bad she lives so far away. Driving over 200 miles to take someone on a date seems a little extreme. Would I ask her out if she lived in Breining? Yeah, I would. But I'll probably never see her again and there's no guarantee that she'd even want to see me. Does she even like me?
Robin turned to look back at the rock. She's watching me. I think she does like me. She did say she was glad I showed up. I wonder if she has more than kind feelings. What would I do if she did?
Robin got to her feet and strolled back towards Maryl. She still had her grin and she couldn't make it go away. Maryl was grinning, too, and Robin stopped about 10 feet away to stare at her. They couldn't keep it up for long and they were soon laughing at one another.
"I'm sorry," they said together.
"My dad's right," Maryl said. "I am a brat. I shouldn't have said?"
"No," Robin interrupted. "It's just that I've got so many people telling me what I should do with my life right now. They all mean well, but after a while I start hearing it in every conversation."
Maryl cocked her head hopefully. "Friends?"
Robin nodded. "I'm hungry. I've got tons of food. Do you want to share?"
"I'd love to. Will you teach me how to skip rocks?"
"Food first," Robin agreed. She spread out her damp towel on the sand and they sat cross-legged, knee to knee as she pulled food from her pack. She hadn't paid much attention when she loaded her pack so it was a little like opening a grab bag. She found fruit salad, fried chicken, corn on the cob, a single desiccated hot dog and pork and beans. "I'm not sure that will taste good cold," Robin said of the last item.
"Hot-cold-I'm past caring. How come you brought so much?"
"I just grabbed the containers that were obviously leftovers. I didn't feel like repacking everything smaller. There's only one spoon though."
"Have you got anything I should worry about?"
The hots for you. "No. I'm clean."
Maryl wasn't shy about digging in and Robin was hard pressed to keep up. Whoever had the spoon was as likely to feed herself as the other and Robin couldn't decide whether she enjoyed being fed or feeding Maryl more.
"Why does this taste so good?" Maryl asked with real pleasure.
"It's a camping thing," Robin suggested. "It's like the coffee in the morning."
"You're right," Maryl said with sudden realization. "It smells 10 times as good here as it does at home."
"Even people who don't drink coffee at home just have to have a cup when they're camping."
"I had a baked potato last night that almost made me cry it was so good."
Robin held up the cob she was working on. "This corn was better last night, too. It was baked in the coals of the fire with the husks still on and it was sweet beyond belief."
"It's still good," Maryl insisted.
"I like how you eat," Robin surprised herself by saying.
Maryl stopped, uncertain. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you're not afraid of your food."
Maryl grinned. "I know what you mean. But I have to admit, I'm eating twice as much camping as I eat at home." Maryl nodded at the fruit salad. "Will you give me a bite of that?"
Robin offered a spoonful and held her breath as Maryl closed her lips over the spoon and pulled back. The tip of Maryl's tongue darted out for a brief moment and then disappeared. Robin dropped her eyes and brought a bite to her own mouth. She could feel Maryl's lips on the spoon as she pulled it out slowly. Maryl was watching her and she looked away as if caught doing something naughty. "Do you want to split this last beer?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
Robin let Maryl do the honors and take the first drink. Together, they demolished all of the food-even the pitiful little hot dog. Maryl insisted on washing up and Robin watched her at the water's edge cleaning her mother's Tupperware. She could tell that Maryl was starting to pink up in the sun, so she moved the towel to a shady spot and got out her sunscreen. "You should use this," she said when Maryl came back. "It would be a shame if you burned this early in your trip."
Maryl nodded and turned to kneel in front of her. "Will you do my back?"
It honestly had not occurred to Robin that she might be asked to perform this service and she felt her hands shaking as Maryl lifted her hair out of the way. Using both hands, she patiently worked the lotion into the flawless skin. She tried to balance business-like with considerate and was disappointed when it was over.
"You have a nice touch," Maryl said softly. "Turn around and I'll do you."
Robin turned and leaned forward. She could hear Maryl rubbing lotion into her hands and tried to relax. Her touch, when it came, was slow and sensual and Robin's bones turned to honey.
"You have a scar on your shoulder," Maryl said as her finger traced it. "How did you get it?"
"I've always wanted to try that. What's it like?"
"I couldn't say." Robin concentrated on her breathing. It had been so long since she had been touched that her brain didn't seem capable of handling the sensation. "I was four years old. Eric and Julian built a parachute out of my mother's best sheets and 2 x 4's and tied me to it. They threw me off the roof. It didn't work."
Maryl was laughing helplessly and Robin smiled as Maryl's forehead pressed into the back of her neck.
"We lived in a two story house," she continued. "I'm lucky I didn't get killed."
Maryl lifted her head and her hands moved over Robin's shoulders and down her arms before moving back up to spread like wings over her shoulder blades. "Why did you let them do that?" Maryl continued to laugh.
"I was four!" Robin defended herself. "They said it would be like flying and I believed them. I was the smallest except for Trevor and he was only a toddler. Bruce had chicken pox so it had to be me. I broke my collarbone, my arm in two places and there's another scar on my head." She reached up to touch it and felt Maryl's hands move to her hair. She almost groaned when she felt lush breasts press into her back.
"Yikes!" Maryl said with reverence. "You could have died. I thought you were kidding."
"I think Eric and Julian got the worst of it. Both of my parents had a go at them and they couldn't sit down for a week. I swear, it took 10 years off my mother's life."
"I can't even remember being four," Maryl said as her hands continued their job. "I barely remember first grade, so I must have been about six."
"I remember Trevor coming home from the hospital right after I turned three. Bruce doesn't, but I do."
Maryl worked silently and Robin savored every moment of it. When she was finished, they sat side by side and covered themselves with the protective cream.
"I should have brought a razor," Maryl said regretfully. "My legs are all prickly. I brought all the stuff on the list, but I didn't think to bring stuff I use all the time."
"What else do you miss?"
"Number one has to be my bed," Maryl spoke firmly. "And number two is razors. I should have brought books and I miss my body scrubber. No matter how much time I spend in the water, I still feel grungy."
Robin laughed. "But it's good for the soul to be grungy once in a while."
"Who told you that? If you can't find enlightenment when you're clean, I don't want any. Pleasure is as good for the soul as suffering. Maybe even better."
"You have a point," Robin admitted.
Maryl crossed her legs and looked at Robin. "Will you teach me how to skip rocks now?"
Skipping rocks turned into a walk, which led to swimming, then stretching out in the afternoon sun and hiding in the shade to avoid burning. Through it all, they talked. One topic inevitably led to another and time ceased to exist. Robin was lost in a golden moment of sensual and emotional intimacy. Being with Maryl felt so perfect it took on the quality of a dream. She made no effort to understand it or explain it-it just was.
Eventually it occurred to her that it was getting late and if she wanted to get back to camp before dark and her brothers came looking for her, she had better get a move on. She put it off as long as she could, but the falling sun was relentless. "I need to get back to camp," she finally conceded.
Maryl sighed. "Me, too. How far is your camp?"
"A mile? A mile and a half? I'm not sure. If I leave now I should get back before it gets dark."
Maryl got up and pulled her to her feet. "I didn't see a flashlight in your pack. You should go."
Robin collected her clothes and stuffed everything in her pack without speaking. She couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't cheapen the memory of their day. Before hefting the pack she turned to Maryl and sighed.
"I had the best day," Maryl said quietly. "I?um?could I?can I hug you?"
Robin felt as awkward as a 12-year-old until they embraced. Her strength vanished at the feel of Maryl in her arms and she wasn't sure she would ever be able to let go. Maryl was a little shorter, but their bodies fit like puzzle pieces. "This is the best part of the whole day," she murmured.
"I knew it would be," Maryl whispered.
They finally separated and Robin saw Maryl wipe at her eyes. She felt a little like crying, too, so she didn't say anything. She swung the pack up to her back and looked downstream.
"I know you're with your family," Maryl said haltingly, "but maybe we could do this again."
Robin felt life flowing back into her. "Can you come tomorrow?"
Maryl's smile was almost painful to see. "I'll bring lunch."
"I'll bring more beer. And the sunscreen."
"I'll meet you halfway," Maryl offered.
Robin turned her memory of the river over in her mind and found a place. "There's a small sandy beach three or four turns downstream that gets sun in the morning. There's a willow tree growing out of a split rock across the river from it. I'll meet you there as soon as I can get away."
"I can't wait." Maryl shooed her with her hands. "Go, before it gets too late."
"See you tomorrow," Robin said. She started out along the shore with a quick pace, anxious to make good time. Before she was completely out of sight she turned to take one last look and could see Maryl standing as she had left her. A hand raised and Robin waved back before continuing on her trek.
Alone again, Maryl suddenly felt vulnerable and she shook out her clothes carefully before putting them back on. It felt very strange at first and almost uncomfortable. She laughed at how quickly she had come to find nudity normal. The entire day had been like a dream of the very best sort and she was sad that it had been necessary to let it end. She had never connected with someone quite the way she had with Robin and it gave her hope.
As she headed reluctantly back to her camp, Maryl replayed images from the day. She had been terrified in the first moment she realized she wasn't alone, but terror had faded to incredulity at the sight of a naked woman. When Robin had fallen into the river after rescuing her shoe, Maryl had shaken her head to clear it and rubbed her eyes only to see a dark, svelte woman rising from the water full of life and energy and?something?maybe joy in merely being alive. Maryl had been drawn to her at once.
Robin's features would not be termed classically beautiful by most people-there was too much of a chiseled quality to the structure of her face. She fell somewhere in the midst of handsome, striking and elegant. Her eyes and mouth were her best facial features in Maryl's opinion. She couldn't remember ever seeing that exact shade of light-almost golden-brown in anyone's eyes before and Robin's lips were full enough to tempt the dead. Her dark, nearly black hair fell to her shoulders in a smooth sloping line. She was thin, but strong, and Maryl had been able to see most of her bone structure. She had small, perfectly shaped breasts, a concave stomach and narrow, tight hips. Maryl thought her remarkably lovely.
In her mind's eye, she watched Robin laughing, eating, smiling, listening and soaking in the sun. Maryl had not been able to help flirting. She didn't think she had overdone it, except possibly when she had deliberately pressed her breasts into Robin's back while investigating the horrific scar on her scalp. If not for the sick feeling it had given her, she might very well have borne Robin to the ground right then and taken her chances. Almost from the first moment she had been incredibly attracted to her. Now she was glad she hadn't done it. She was reasonably certain Robin would have been willing, but she had found their emotional intimacy to be far more meaningful to her than any passionate expression could have been. Not that she was against the idea of making love, but better after having connected with her than before. Maryl wasn't sure what the morrow would bring, but even if it was only more talking, that was plenty exciting enough for her.
Maryl was back in camp before she was mentally prepared for it. She halted abruptly at the disgusted tone of Linda's voice.
"Finally! We were getting ready to come looking for you. We didn't know if you were hurt or dead or lost or what!"
"I'm fine," Maryl said calmly. "I was only about 30 minutes away."
"We didn't know that!"
Maryl shrugged. "Well, now you do."
Eva stepped in front of Linda and smiled. "Did you have a nice day?"
Maryl couldn't keep a smile from her face. "Perfect. Really, I can't remember when I've had a better or more?rewarding day." She glanced at Linda and couldn't resist. "Thanks for asking."
"We have to look out for each other up here," Linda insisted.
"No harm was done," Eva said to soothe things. "She's back now and it's not even dark."
Maryl thought of Robin, still most likely making her way downstream and hoped that she was all right. Ignoring Linda, she walked over to their supplies and got a drink of water. She drank two full glasses before her thirst seemed to diminish.
"What did you do all day?" Brooke asked.
Maryl took an empty lawn chair and stretched her legs out with a sigh. "I laid in the sun. I learned how to skip rocks. I opened myself up to the beauty all around me." I think I fell in love. "This is a wonderful spot, Eva. I'm glad I came."
"I'm glad you like it. Does this mean you've gotten over not having a toilet and showers?"
Maryl giggled. "Not entirely, but almost."
Wendy's voice was small. "You must be starving."
"I still say she shouldn't have wandered off like that," Linda said. "Anything could have happened."
"Lighten up, Linda." Noreen came to Maryl's defense. "Sometimes people need a little time alone. It helps put things in perspective."
"I think I'll go out again tomorrow," Maryl said while they were thinking about it anyway. "It felt good to be alone. I knew that all of you were here for me, but it was kind of like having only myself to rely on. I know it was only an illusion, but I think it was good for me. I feel happier and more relaxed in my skin after today and I'd like to see if it was a one time thing or if I feel the same tomorrow."
Every one was looking at her with different expressions ranging from anger and fear to curiosity and jealousy. "I think it would be wise if I took a lunch though. I didn't realize how much I would need one. Is that all right with you, Eva?"
"You won't go too far?"
Maryl laughed in relief. "Not more than a 45 minute walk or so. And I'll stay very close to the river. I may be stubborn, but I'm not stupid. I'll be careful."
Eva shrugged. "Then I don't see why not. I'm reluctant to put limits on anyone, but if you're not back an hour before it starts to get dark, we'll come looking for you."
"That sounds more than fair."
Kirsten and Brooke were in charge of making dinner and Maryl wandered down to sit at the water's edge. Her tent mates, Wendy and Noreen, joined her.
"Weren't you scared all by yourself?" Wendy asked.
"At first I was a little nervous," Maryl admitted. "My outdoor experience has always been limited to backyards and city parks. But after a while, when bears and mountain lions and rattlesnakes didn't attack me, I started to relax. I almost felt as if there was someone there watching out for me and I knew that nothing bad would happen."
"You seem happier," Noreen said.
Maryl smiled. "It was like a dream. I felt free and safe and peaceful. I didn't ever want it to end. For a while I was just me-no expectations or rules or disapproval. I can hardly wait to go back."
"Linda started in on forming up a rescue party about two hours after you left," Noreen snorted with dry humor. "You look perfectly capable of taking care of yourself to me, but you know how Linda is."
"She's bossy," Wendy said shyly.
Maryl looked at Wendy in surprise. She hardly ever said anything so forthright about anyone. Wanting to be supportive of her opinion without being condescending, Maryl rubbed her back with a wide smile. "I think so, too." Wendy blushed and Maryl thought it adorable.
"She can't help it," Noreen added. "She does it when she's worried and scared. Usually when she feels threatened, but today I think she was genuinely worried about you. For her own reasons, of course."
"Really? What reasons?"
"Well, I'm just guessing, but I don't think she feels safe here. She doesn't know how to survive on her own in the wilderness and every little sound is a potential threat. That's part of why she follows Eva around more than usual. When she gets scared she gets mad to protect herself. That's why she jumped on you when you got back."
Maryl thought it over and it made sense. "Perhaps, but I, for one, would appreciate it if she weren't so tenacious about it. One would think she's afraid of everything."
"She probably is."
Reluctant to feel sympathy for Linda, Maryl picked up a smooth, flat rock and got to her feet. "Prepare to be impressed," she bragged. Remembering to keep her arm loose and low, she flicked the rock over the water's surface and watched it skip 5 times before skidding and sinking. "Beat that!"
Everyone got into the contest with varying degrees of competitiveness. Brooke and Kirsten even took turns from cooking to give it a try and by the time the sun disappeared, Brooke had emerged the undisputed winner with somewhere between 10 and 12 skips, depending on who had counted. Linda had nine clear skips and the look she gave Maryl's eight skips said that winning wasn't as important to her as being better than Maryl.
She had to wonder how Robin would handle Linda. She doubted Robin would long tolerate her supercilious attitude, but how she would put a stop to it was a mystery. She did know that Robin would have taken the contest easily. She had regularly made throws over ten-her lean, taut body like a whip as it gracefully coiled back and struck!
Maryl laughed at herself for being so inordinately proud of Robin's rock skipping prowess. It didn't seem like much in the scheme of things, but it was something.
There was more laughter than usual during dinner and Maryl wondered why. The others claimed not to have done anything special aside from trying to learn how to weave wild grasses into baskets under Eva's direction. Maryl was actually rather impressed with the baskets. Most of them were a little funny looking, but they had held together and she expressed enthusiasm for their efforts. Linda had nothing to show as she had destroyed it for not being perfect. Maryl felt a flicker of pity for her.
She and Noreen were the after dinner clean-up crew and she pressured Noreen into letting her handle it alone to 'make up for worrying everyone'. She wouldn't have minded working with Noreen, but she wanted to be alone with her thoughts.
I wonder what she's doing right this minute. Maybe she's washing the dishes, too. Maryl grinned. Can I get any cornier? She's probably sitting around the fire with her family and I'll bet they're laughing and joking. At least they have beer. I wonder if Robin is telling them about meeting me. I wonder what they think about her meeting me tomorrow. I wonder if they're as great as she seems to think they are. If they can be judged by how she is, they might be. It hardly matters though. I'll probably never meet them. Maryl glanced at her companions. Ah, jeez. Brooke is crying again. I suppose I shouldn't resent it-I know how painful it is to be cheated on. Lord knows it's happened often enough to me. I wonder if Robin would?? She shook her head with distaste at the direction of her thoughts. Don't even think about it. A couple more days and I'll never see her again. It's a good thing Janelle isn't here. We've been friends so long she would know in a heartbeat that I spent the day with someone special.
Maryl puttered as long as she could and eventually felt she had no option but to join the others. She stuck a marshmallow on a stick and held it over the coals as Brooke continued to wallow in self-pity.
"?I mean, how many times in your life does love happen to you? What if Kimmy was my last time?"
"Come now!" Eva laughed. "You're only what? Twenty-six? You've got another 40 or 50 years of life ahead of you. Do you really think that you'll never love anyone again?"
"I'm saying?what if?" Brooke cried. "The way I felt about her-it was so strong and so pure-what if I never feel that way again?"
"You probably won't," Kirsten said matter-of-factly. "People aren't exactly the same. Why should love be exactly the same?"
Maryl knew she was right, having experienced different kinds and levels of love herself, but Brooke looked crushed and disbelieving.
"Usually," Noreen added, "the more you do something, the better at it you'll be-if you learn from your mistakes. I look at every relationship in terms of what I learned from it."
Linda cocked her head with interest. "What did you learn from Terri?"
"I learned that when someone says 'I don't want to hurt you', it means they know something you don't."
Linda laughed with understanding and leaned over the fire to high five Noreen. A trickle of laughter followed the gesture-except for Brooke. Maryl could tell she wasn't getting it.
Eva took Brooke's hand. "What did you learn with Kimmy? When you look back over your relationship with her is there anything that stands out?"
"Everything!" Brooke wailed. "She taught me how to love and what it means to be a lesbian and?"
"That's not what we mean," Kirsten said impatiently. "What did you learn about how you relate to another person in an intimate relationship? What was your biggest mistake?"
Brooke was clueless. She looked about for help and found none. Maryl stopped feeling sorry for her. She seemed to be oblivious to anything but self-pity and grief. Maryl was far more interested in her marshmallow. She just about had it to a perfect golden brown-the same color as Robin's eyes-and she was looking forward to eating it.
"Maybe you could think about it," Eva suggested. "What about you, Wendy? What did you learn?"
Wendy spoke quietly, but with a small measure of confidence. "That it takes more than words to make a commitment. It takes honor and integrity and faith."
Maryl nodded in agreement and smiled as Wendy's eyes touched hers.
"What about you, Maryl?"
She looked over at Kirsten and wished she hadn't asked. "That I should stop handing out house keys indiscriminately."
There was a smattering of laughter, but Kirsten leaned forward intently. "That may be true, but you're avoiding the question."
Maryl nodded and inspected her marshmallow again. "I guess I learned that women don't communicate directly and that when they communicate something indirectly on a regular basis, you should listen."
"What do you mean?" Linda asked.
"Well??" Maryl popped the marshmallow into her mouth while she worked out how to explain. "Women don't say 'I want to do this or that'. Instead, they'll say 'I'd like to?' or 'Wouldn't it be nice if?' or 'I wish that?'. We tend not to say what we want. We hint at it. And we rarely tell people what to do-even if we get paid to. We ask and we suggest. I would never say 'Give that to me'. I'd probably say 'Would you please hand that to me?' Or 'Could I get you to hand me that?' Do you see what I'm saying?"
"Yeah," Noreen said slowly. "Now that you mention it, it makes sense. I'm a supervisor at work and a lot of times I'll tell the men to do something and they brush me off. It always kind of blew me away, but now that I'm thinking about it, I always ask them to do things. Like they have an option. I feel like I'm telling them to do things, but I'm not."
"Exactly," Maryl nodded. "The second part of what I learned is that when a woman suggests or wonders about the same thing repeatedly, she wants it. And sooner or later, if you don't help her do something about it, she'll find an opportunity to get it on her own. Maybe if I had understood that before, I would have seen what Alaine was going to do. She talked about it often enough-I just never took it as a serious desire. Maybe if I had I could have protected myself."
Kirsten nodded sagely. "Interesting."
Noreen looked at Kirsten. "What did you learn?"
Kirsten seemed unusually somber as she spoke. "You never know when it's the last time, so give every single time your complete and undivided attention."
Maryl caught Eva's look of utter sympathy for Kirsten out of the corner of her eye. She had never heard Kirsten's story. Only that her last lover had left because she wasn't getting what she needed. Whatever that was.
Her thoughts turned again to Robin and she stretched her feet out towards the fire. She tuned out the ongoing conversation and stared up at the stars. The air was so clear up in the mountains and without the lights of the city to interfere there looked to be 10 times as many stars as she was accustomed to. The Big Dipper was the only constellation she recognized and she found herself wishing she knew the names of the others. There were planets in the night sky as well, but she didn't know which part of the sky to look in to find them and how to tell them from stars. Robin would know. She just knew she would.
She imagined lying in Robin's arms and following her finger as her husky voice pointed out which stars belonged in which constellations and the stories ancient peoples had devised to explain them.
"What do you think, Maryl?"
Her head popped up as if on a string. "Excuse me?"
Linda sighed impatiently. "Love at first sight. Do you believe in it or not?"
Maryl looked at the expectant faces and thought of the incomparable day she had just experienced. "I don't know."
"That's it? I don't know?" Linda sneered. "You usually have so much more to say. I'm a little disappointed in you."
Maryl sighed as obviously as she could without flouncing. Linda's attitude had just crossed the line. "I seem to do that a lot, Linda. My opinions usually seem to set you off. I thought I'd keep it simple for once and see if that made you feel any better about me."
Linda's eyes opened wide and she asked with disbelief, "Are you patronizing me?"
Maryl shrugged insolently. "I'm a little tired of being patronized, so I guess I am."
"I'm not patronizing you." Linda seemed mad and confused at the same time. As if she weren't sure what she was supposed to feel.
Maryl, on the other hand, was quite certain she was angry and she made every effort to keep herself under control. "No matter what I say or do, I feel like you don't approve of me. It feels like you scoff at my opinions, dismiss my ideas and mock my feelings. It seems like you find it amusing when it's my turn to clean up. It looked to me like the most important thing to you about the rock skipping contest was that you beat me. I feel slighted and ridiculed at every turn. I don't know what it is about me that you take offense at, but you go right ahead. You don't intimidate me a bit. You just piss me off." Maryl stood abruptly and looked at the open-mouthed expressions on the other women. "I apologize to the rest of you for this little tantrum. I hope it doesn't ruin the rest of your evening."
Maryl took a deep breath and shook her arms as if shaking off water. She felt calmer immediately. "I've had a really long day. I'm going to bed. Good night."
Maryl was inside the tent she shared with Wendy and Noreen before the conversation picked back up.
"I am not patronizing her," Linda insisted.
"I've got to be honest." Noreen said clearly. "You sounded patronizing to me."
"What did I say?"
The quiver in Brooke's voice was gone. "You told her that you were disappointed in her for not having more of an opinion."
"But that's not patronizing!" Linda objected.
"What was it then?" Eva asked. "How did you want her to feel when you said it?"
There was a long silent moment and Maryl could barely hear Wendy.
"I like Maryl."
"So do I," Kirsten said.
Except for Linda, the others chimed their agreement and Maryl smiled as she prepared for bed. She truly didn't care one way or the other about how her relationship with Linda turned out. She had said what she wanted to say and it was done. She zipped her sleeping bag all the way up, curled on her side, fixed Robin firmly in her mind and went to sleep.
Maryl was the first to wake in the morning. She carefully got out of her sleeping bag and went outside without waking Wendy and Noreen. The sun wasn't up yet, though the sky had lightened just enough that she didn't need a flashlight. Grabbing her jacket for added warmth against the morning chill, she made her way to the makeshift latrine and took care of business. She washed her hands in the river and approached the camp stove with trepidation. She had been shown how to use it more than once, but she still expected it to blow up.
Her first inclination was to head down river, but she wanted to reassure the others that she was still a part of the group. She hoped that making coffee would alleviate any feelings of rejection they might feel. Maryl was sensitive to the fact that someone could come looking for her on a whim and she didn't want that to happen. Anything she could do to lessen that possibility was worth the extra effort.
She pumped the little handle, turned the knob, said a little prayer to the gods of all campers and struck the match. The burst of blue flame made her jump, but the expected catastrophe didn't materialize and she patted herself on the back. Setting the coffee to perk, she stood as close as she dared and warmed her hands. The muted roar of the camp stove mingled with the sound of the river and an occasional rustle from the tents. It was quiet in a way that Maryl found very interesting. She could hear the occasional bird and what had to be pinecones and small twigs dropping from the trees, but there was an underlying stillness she had never heard before. It sounded like waiting and she let it heighten her anticipation of seeing Robin again.
The smell of coffee brought Eva out of her tent and Maryl poured them both a cup. "Good morning, Eva."
"Morning. You're up early."
"I went to bed early."
"True." Eva crouched with her coffee next to the fire pit and poked at it with a stick. She found some coals under the ash and soon had the fire going again.
"You're good at this whole camping thing," Maryl said in a soft tone.
"My dad worked in the Forest Service. We camped a lot. He thought it was an important life skill." Eva smiled up at her. "I can catch fish with my bare hands, too. If there were any worth eating around here, I'd show you."
Maryl grinned. "I believe you."
Eva sat back and put her stocking feet close to the blaze. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. I'm good."
"Here, sit down. If you don't mind I'd kind of like to talk to you a bit before the others wake up."
Maryl pulled a chair close and copied her pose. She was a little worried that Eva was upset about her histrionics the night before.
"You seem to be having a harder time than most in adjusting to the group."
Maryl nodded in agreement. "I was thinking the same thing myself. Would it be better if I stopped coming?"
Eva frowned and shook her head. "Please?That's not what I mean at all. I'm just wondering if there's something I can do to help."
"I don't think so," Maryl said honestly. "Of course, I bring a lot of it on myself. I probably shouldn't have said what I did to Linda last night."
Eva's voice dropped markedly so as not to be overheard by anyone who might be lying awake in the tents. "Personally, I think she had it coming. She treats you differently than the others and I haven't been sure what to do about it. I apologize for that. I thought you handled it perfectly. I was impressed."
Maryl hid her smile behind her coffee.
"You weren't nasty about it," Eva continued. "You didn't blame her for anything and you took responsibility for your feelings. I thought you explained very well how you were feeling and you didn't waste a lot of time doing it. I can't even accurately call it a fight. How much of the conversation did you hear after you went to bed?"
"Very little. I went right to sleep."
Eva sighed. "That's too bad. The others were very supportive of your feelings. They've seen how she treats you, too. They stood up for you. It's hard to say if Linda's attitude will improve-frankly, I don't think it likely-but I think she got the message that if she messes with you she messes with everyone."
Maryl considered. "It feels good that the others support me, but I don't need them to stand up for me."
"They need it," Eva emphasized. "It gives them confidence."
Maryl saw a little more clearly how Eva saw the group. "Why does Linda hate me? Did I do something??"
"She doesn't hate you, Maryl. She feels threatened by you and she's trying to protect herself."
"But, how am I threatening her?"
Eva adjusted the fire before responding. "I don't know if you see it, but Linda can be charming and she does care."
"I know she does. Not with me, but I see her laughing and joking sometimes."
Eva grew thoughtful. "She's been coming to the meetings for almost three years. She's my longest member. Because of that, I think she feels a little territorial. I allow it because?well, I'm not a therapist so I can't say I really know what I'm doing. I try to make that very clear."
"You do," Maryl reassured her.
"Good." Eva looked relieved. "Linda is useful to me in several ways. First, she draws attention away from me as an authority figure. It keeps women from becoming too dependent on me. She also gets impatient when someone gets too deep into self-pity. Her usual reaction is to get sarcastic with them, but it tends to shock them out of it. I think her impatience was part of why she wanted to go looking for you yesterday. She may have thought you were seeking solitude so you could wallow in private."
"But I wasn't."
"You made that very clear," Eva grinned. "And I think that's why she seemed a little nastier than usual last night."
"Ah?!" Maryl thought it made sense.
"Another reason is that Linda's usually the one to push the conversation in new directions when it begins to stagnate. Noreen does it, too, but she doesn't have your?dynamic personality."
She was still too cold to blush, so Maryl smiled. "Thank you."
"Now, as far as I'm concerned, her most valuable function in the group is that she irritates everyone to some degree."
Maryl shook her head. "Why is that useful?"
"She gives everyone someone to hate besides themselves."
Maryl's chuckle started small and she covered her mouth to keep it that way. "I'm sorry. It's just so sad."
Eva smiled at her humor. "I know."
Maryl hitched her jacket tighter. "So how do I threaten her?"
"They like you. It's hard not to."
Maryl ducked her head to hide the embarrassment she felt at being pleased.
"You're beautiful and smart and fun and you don't need the group the way she thinks you should. She doesn't know how to compete with that and it's not in her nature to accept and enjoy it. I think she feels that she's losing her position of influence to you. If that happens, what will she be to us?"
Maryl shook her head in dismay. "But, I'm not trying to take over?"
"I know that," Eva interrupted. "But Linda sees now, not next month. I don't mean to judge the depth of your pain and fear, but you aren't as swamped by it as most of the people who come to our meetings. In my opinion, I don't think you'll be a long-term member. You're more than welcome to prove me wrong, but I think you're what I call a self-healer. You don't need to experience your pain or have someone fix you. You just need a sympathetic place to vent for a while and then your heart will heal and you'll move on as good as new."
Maryl was fascinated at Eva's insights.
"Noreen is a self-healer, too. I'm actually surprised she's hung on as long as she has. She seems to be waiting for something." Eva watched her over her coffee. "I'm not saying anything upsetting, am I?"
"No," Maryl admitted. "It's a little like hearing your horoscope. It's never anything you didn't know about yourself, but hearing it out loud is somehow so rewarding."
Eva grinned with obvious affection. "Well, to be fair, you're also stubborn, mouthy as hell and a little intolerant at times, but not enough to be a real pain in the ass about it."
"It means so much to me that you noticed." Maryl smiled widely. "Let me ask you something. Why do you run this group? What do you get out of it?"
"I collect broken hearts the way some people collect stray cats. I like trying to fix them up and turning them loose on the world."
"But, what do you get out of it?"
Eva stared at her as if trying to decide what she could safely say. "It makes me feel good about myself. I feel like a better person when someone gets happy again. Like I've done something magical."
"You've got your work cut out for you with Linda," she teased. "What about Kirsten?"
Eva's face closed up. "Kirsten may be the most damaged of them all. I worry about her constantly."
Maryl realized instantly that Eva was safeguarding information about Kirsten that no one else knew. She also realized that it was probably something she would rather not know. "Well, I appreciate all you do for us. This whole trip probably took a lot of work and planning." Maryl winked. "I'll try to behave myself."
Eva rubbed at her eyes dramatically. "I knew I should have packed a bottle of whiskey for emergencies."
Maryl laughed and heard the sound of a zipper. She glanced over and saw Linda coming out of the large tent. She whispered to Eva. "Time to make peace. Wish me luck."
Eva whispered back. "Pretend it never happened. If you apologize she'll believe that you really were in the wrong."
Maryl thought fast and patted Eva's shoulder as she got up. "Good morning, Linda. There's coffee, but I'm not proud of it."
Linda looked at her in confusion. "What's wrong with it?"
"Technically? Nothing: I thought I made it just like you showed me, but I must have forgotten something. It's not as good as yours." Maryl hated kissing ass, but in order to preserve some peace for everyone else she made herself do it.
Linda reached over and turned the flame of the camp stove down just a bit. "You've got to simmer it. Give it time to develop some flavor."
Simmer it my ass! "I'll try to remember that. Thanks." Maryl turned away immediately to keep from laughing in her face. The look of appreciation on Eva's face made her glad she had.
Anxious to be on her way as soon as possible, Maryl went to her tent and quietly straightened her things. She emptied her backpack into her sleeping bag and stuffed her towel back into it. She picked out what to wear and set it aside.
"Are you leaving already?" Wendy asked.
Maryl jumped at the sound of her voice. "Not yet. I'm just cleaning up my corner."
"Eva wants us to pick berries today up in the field where we parked the van. She promised us a cobbler for dessert tonight."
"That sounds good," Maryl said truthfully.
Wendy's eyes held a plea. "You could come with us."
Maryl felt bad for her. "Sorry. I feel like I've already made a commitment to my heart. Maybe tomorrow."
Maryl could tell from the relief in Wendy's eyes that she had just heard a promise to stay in camp the next day. She wanted to kick herself for not being more careful. What made it worse was that she genuinely liked her and didn't want to hurt her feelings. She couldn't think of one single thing that she could say to get out of it and make Wendy feel good at the same time.
Noreen rolled over and Maryl couldn't help but grin at her tousled expression. "Hey, you. How did you sleep?"
"Shoot me," Noreen grumbled. "I'm too damn old for this."
"You're not old," Wendy objected.
Noreen groaned as she sat up. She licked her teeth as if tasting her mouth and looked calmly at Wendy. "And I'm not drunk. That just leaves stupid."
Wendy's laugh was like a silver wind chime in a tropical storm and it made Maryl happy just to hear it. "Do it again!"
"Laugh! Do it again. Please?"
Wendy tried to hide in her sleeping bag.
"Come on, Noreen. Help me!" Maryl went after her and began tickling, trying to coax that delightful sound from her again. Somehow it got all out of control and turned into a free for all.
They jerked to a stop at Kirsten's voice at the tent door. "What are you guys doing in there?"
Maryl felt like a child caught stealing cookies. "Nothing."
"May I come in?"
Noreen giggled. "What's the pass word?"
There was a long silence and then Kirsten said: "Sauerkraut."
"Wow!" Maryl breathed loudly. "Even I didn't know that. Come on in!"
Kirsten unzipped the tent flap and wiggled inside. "What's going on?"
Maryl tried to straighten her hair out so she wouldn't look so disheveled. "We were trying to make Wendy laugh. It's adorable. It makes you happy just hearing it."
Wendy buried her face in her knees and Noreen ruffled her hair. It only took the three of them a few minutes to make her laugh again. "See?" Maryl laughed. "Isn't that the cutest thing you ever heard?"
"You should laugh more often," Kirsten said encouragingly. "It suits you."
Now that the shenanigans were over, Maryl turned her hand to cleaning up the mess they had made. Most of their belongings were mixed up and together they sorted them out.
"Are you still planning on going for a walk?" Kirsten asked.
Cautious after her earlier faux pas, Maryl made sure not to leave an opening for uninvited company. "Yes. I understand you're going to pick berries for a cobbler. I can't wait to taste it."
Noreen frowned. "Wait a minute. What are you going to do for us?"
Maryl blinked. "Huh?"
Kirsten smiled wickedly. "She's right. We're going to be out in the sun with thorns and bugs for entertainment and you'll be goofing off. How is it fair that you should get to enjoy the fruits of our labor? What are you going to do for us that we should let you?"
Maryl looked with disbelief at the three women. "What do you want? Someone to do your chores?"
Wendy squeaked. "She should have to sing for her supper."
"Oh, no," Maryl objected. "I am not singing. Forget it." Their smiles told her they were serious and she stuffed her things carelessly into her sleeping bag.
"You don't have to sing," Noreen comforted her. "Unless you want cobbler."
Maryl set her jaw firmly as they continued to tease her. When they saw she wasn't going to be any fun about it, they spilled out of the tent to inform the rest of the camp. Maryl pounded on her sleeping bag, but didn't feel any better. She resigned herself to not getting any of the special dessert and refused to leave the tent until breakfast was ready.
Maryl kicked rocks and used a stick to swat at the tall grasses along the shore. When she reached the previous day's beach, she sat down to sulk. First had been her inadvertent commitment to stay in camp the next day, then the ribbing over what she would sing after dinner, followed by a 10 minute argument with Brooke over the size of the lunch she was taking. Considering that she had not eaten at camp the day before, she felt perfectly justified. They had more than enough food, but Brooke seemed to feel that Maryl was snatching the food right out of her mouth. No one else seemed to have a problem with it so Maryl finally hefted her pack, turned her back on Brooke and left. The down side was that she now felt frustrated with life in general.
To top it off, Linda had smugly announced that she was too chicken to sing for them and Maryl felt obligated to prove her wrong. The only camp type songs she knew were Kumbaya and This Little Light of Mine, but damned if she was going to sing either of those. They could eat their stupid cobbler right in front of her-see if she cared!
When she felt a little better she took off her clothes. By some miracle she had not burned in the sun yesterday and she folded her clothes on top of the lunch in her pack. Settling the pack back on her shoulders she set off. It took another twenty minutes to reach the spot Robin had suggested. If the willow tree-it really did grow out of a split rock-hanging over the river had not been enough to point it out to her, Robin had apparently stopped on her way back to camp and used rocks to put an X on the sand.
The beach was just a strip of sand roughly 10 feet deep and 25 feet long. A wall of rock surrounded it and just downstream from it was what looked like a decent swimming hole. Maryl couldn't tell how deep it was, but it was a beautiful place. If she had not stopped out of an excess of caution the day before, she probably would have chosen this very spot to spend the day.
From the beach, the willow was magnificent. It seemed to lean towards her: wispy tendrils dipping into the river's current only to pull out and dip again. Maryl waded through the branches and into a cavern of cool stillness. It seemed like a good place to leave their lunch so Maryl pulled her towel free and left the pack in a dry spot. The day had not yet become hot and she waded back to the beach to stretch out on the sand and wait.
When she thought about the time she had spent with Robin, her clearest memories were of what Robin had said and done rather than the shape of her breasts, the ripe fullness of her lips or the length of her legs. Granted, she hoped to get a little closer to that body today, but she looked forward to the feeling of transcending herself that she had felt in Robin's company. There was something compelling about the way she felt with Robin. She felt vital and free and inspired like never before.
It was hard to tell time with nothing to mark its passing, but it seemed that she had waited for an hour or more and she began to feel foolish. Am I insane? What am I doing? Here I am, sitting naked in the middle of nowhere waiting for a woman I barely know to show up and make me feel good. Does that make any sense? How stupid do you have to be to put your hopes on a stranger? Even if all you hoped for was one more perfect day?
She probably changed her mind. She seemed to be excited about today, but maybe her family talked her out of it. I know Eva and the others would have done the same if I had told them what happened yesterday. I shouldn't have told her that I was with a support group. She probably thinks I'm crazy and she's likely right. Maybe I should go back to camp and help pick berries. At least then I wouldn't have to sing or look like a coward.
The X made out rocks seemed to mock her and she idly rearranged them. A big fat zero. That's what this day has been. Maybe if she comes back here tomorrow or the next day she'll see this and know that I waited for her and she'll feel bad. It's childish, I know, but if she thinks I'm crazy I've got nothing to lose.
Maryl felt disgusted with herself and she shook out her towel before wading across the river to retrieve her pack. There just didn't seem to be any point to waiting. As she ducked between the willow's branches, she thought she heard something and turned to look downstream. She had not been able to see very far from the beach and now that her perspective had changed she could see that Robin was less than a hundred yards away. Her heart lifted immediately and she stepped back into the sun and waved.
Robin was wearing her pack and dragging an inner tube through the water with something in it and it was slowing her down. Maryl wanted to run to her, but that felt foolish, too, so she waited. With each step Robin took, Maryl's mood lifted until she was almost laughing as Robin stopped in front of her.
"Sorry I took so long," Robin sighed. "I had to run an unexpected errand of mercy and then my great idea," she pointed at the inner tube, "turned out to mean slogging through the current and?"
"I'm just glad you're here," Maryl giggled. "I was giving up. I was going to leave and now you're here."
Robin very deliberately looked her over from head to toe and Maryl felt her skin tingling in response. "I thought I dreamed you," Robin said somberly. "I don't think I really believed that you would be here."
"You went to an awful lot of trouble for a dream," Maryl quipped.
"Some dreams are worth it." A heartbeat later Robin blushed as if she had just realized the implications of her words. She stepped quickly through the branches and tied the inner tube to the trunk. "I brought beer, water and plenty of ice."
Maryl leaned over to look as Robin flipped the top off the ice chest. "Maybe I should put our lunch in there."
Maryl tossed sandwiches and fruit in the chest and took out a bottle of water before closing it. Robin was still wearing her pack and Maryl gestured at it with her eyes. "What have you got in there?"
Robin grinned. "Come on. You'll like this."
Maryl followed her across the river and knelt in the sand. Robin crouched with her pack between her knees and Maryl saw her eyes go to the circle of rocks.
"I could have sworn I left a hug for you."
Maryl realized how the O complemented the X and at the hopeful invitation in Robin's eyes, she slowly leaned over the pack and pressed their lips together. As kisses go it was chaste, but definitely promising and Maryl sat back on her heels with a smile. From the smile on Robin's face she knew that it was just a beginning.
Robin unzipped the pack and pulled out a blanket. She stood and shook it out to lie on the sand and Maryl helped to secure the corners with rocks. Robin moved the pack onto it and they both sat. "I kept thinking about the things you claimed to miss. I couldn't manage a bed so I brought this."
Maryl laughed out loud as a blow up air mattress was taken from the pack.
"I know it's not much," Robin admitted, "but it was the best I could do on short notice."
"You're so sweet." Maryl's heart melted.
"There's more." Robin reached back into the pack and pulled out a paper sack. "This is why I took so long."
Maryl peeked inside and then upended the bag onto the blanket. Razors, shaving gel, soap, shampoo and a body scrubber tumbled out.
"I made a run down to that little mini mart/bait shop at the bottle of the hill. They didn't carry books and the magazines were limited to Field & Stream and Penthouse. Sorry. If you're really desperate I could tell you stories."
Maryl was dumbfounded. It had to be a 45-minute drive down to the store over bad road. This wasn't just a spur of the moment gift. Robin had gone to a great deal of effort to do something nice for her. It wasn't the money she had spent that affected Maryl so deeply. There was only about 10 dollars worth of merchandise on the blanket. She tried to remember the last time someone had done something so considerate. "I don't know what to say."
Robin shrugged. "You don't have to say anything. I wanted to do something to thank you for yesterday. It's been a long?long time since I felt so happy and free. I just wanted to give something back to you for that."
"But, you already gave me more than I gave you. You rescued my clothes and fed me and made me feel safe. It was a perfect day because of you." Maryl waved at the jumble of travel-size hygiene products. "This is too much."
"I only spent about twelve dollars."
"That's not what I mean, Robin. It's not the money. It's the time and thought you put into it. I'm flattered and I thank you for it, but it wasn't necessary."
"That's what made it fun. Look," Robin said earnestly. "I did it because I wanted to. Not because I thought I had to or that you expected it. Let's not make it into a big thing. Just enjoy it. If it's going to make you uncomfortable, I'll put it back in my pack and we'll forget it."
Maryl picked up the body scrubber and rubbed it between her hands. "I don't want to forget it, but now I feel indebted."
"Damn," Robin sighed. She rubbed her face with both hands before looking into Maryl's eyes. "My motives were not entirely?pure."
"What do you mean?"
Robin looked embarrassed and put one hand over her eyes while she spoke. "There's something incredibly erotic about watching a woman bathing and shaving her legs. I only went to all the trouble in hopes that I could watch and now you know what a pervert I am."
Robin's admission wiped away all of Maryl's discomfort and replaced it with sexual excitement. The certainty that they would make love before the day was over settled on her like the warmth of the sun. "In that case, I accept." She picked up the shampoo and headed for the river. She stopped ankle deep in the water and daringly turned to look over her shoulder. "If you're going to be a voyeur, you might as well have a front row seat. You can be my shower caddy."
Maryl watched long enough to see Robin frantically gathering everything else into her hands and then waded into deeper water. She dunked and wet her hair thoroughly. Putting a generous amount of shampoo in her hand, she handed the small bottle to Robin and began to lather her hair. Maryl closed her eyes and tried to pretend she was alone. She knew that she was acting out a fantasy for Robin and she wanted it to be worth the long drive she had made. She could feel Robin's eyes on her breasts as she vigorously scrubbed her scalp and it made her warm.
After rinsing her hair, Maryl took the hand soap and body scrubber from Robin's hands and washed her face before moving to shallower water. She rubbed the soap liberally on the scrubber and set the bar on a rock. Ignoring Robin's presence as she walked around in front of her to watch, Maryl started with her arms and hands. She tried not to think about what she was doing and let her body move through its daily cleansing ritual. It was hard to ignore the fact that her every move was being watched. Her breasts seemed especially sensitive to the rough surface and she took her time, pleased to see that Robin's gaze was spellbound.
Maryl just didn't have the audacity to finger her own genitals for someone else's benefit in broad daylight: at least, not on a second date. She did what was necessary and moved on to her legs, hoping that Robin wouldn't feel cheated. When she had scrubbed everything she could reach, she held the scrubber out. "Would you do my back?"
Robin all but threw the razors and shaving gel onto the rock and took it from her hand. Maryl lifted her hair out of the way and gave her access. She closed her eyes in order to magnify the sensations Robin's touch evoked. The longer it went on, the more she wanted. She was breathing heavily through her mouth when Robin finished. Her heart rate was still steady, but it was beating much more forcefully than usual.
Maryl staggered forward and dove beneath the surface to rinse off. The current carried her further than she wanted to go and she turned to swim back upstream. Wringing her hair out, she walked past Robin and her soapy hands. Making room on the rock to sit, she picked up the shaving gel and reached for Robin's hand.
Robin dropped to her knees and swished her hands in the water. Maryl squirted gel into her palm and let Robin lift her foot to place it between her breasts. She took a deep breath as Robin's hands began turning the gel into lather on her calf. When Robin stopped at her knee, Maryl guided her hands to mid-thigh with a smile.
Her own hands were shaking as she picked up the razor and Robin took it from her fingers. "Let me."
Maryl let her head fall back and shook her hair to let it dry as the razor was cautiously drawn over her skin. Robin's touch was gentle and meticulous, but Maryl could feel her heartbeat under the sole of her foot and she had to wonder how Robin could keep her hands so steady while her heart was racing so. The gel left behind a soapy film and Robin's hand searched over it diligently for any stray hairs. When she was satisfied, she lowered Maryl's foot into the water and rinsed the film away.
"Did I knick you anywhere?"
Maryl shook her head and lifted her other foot to place it over Robin's heart. Robin pushed into it a little and picked up the gel. Maryl watched her hands at work and tried to imagine what they would feel like when they touched her most tender places. It was all she could do to keep from sliding down into Robin's lap and finding out right then.
Robin continued as though content to do nothing else all day. Maryl watched her closely as she lifted her free foot up to rest in the curls between Robin's legs. Her hands stilled and her eyes closed as Maryl smiled knowingly.
"I'm almost done," Robin whispered.
"Okay." Maryl obediently lowered her foot and held her growing desire in check. Robin's hands went about their task and she was rinsing her leg in short order. Maryl eased into the water and into Robin's hungry kiss. It took a moment for their mouths to learn each other and then everything was right in the world.
Robin was the one to pull back and lead her out of the water. They fell to the blanket and their bodies intertwined as hands began to roam. Maryl lost track of who was doing what to whom. It all felt so good that it didn't matter.
At some point it changed and Maryl was hovering on the edge. Robin wasn't quite where Maryl needed her to be, but then Maryl reached down and guided her fingers. "There," she urged.
"I thought you might be too sensitive," Robin said soft and low.
Maryl shook her head and lifted her hips to encourage her. "Don't stop," she moaned.
Robin snuggled into her side and ran her tongue around a receptive nipple. "I won't."
Maryl fell into pleasure like she had waiting for it all her life. It built beyond its normal boundaries and she held her breath as it lingered for a moment and then flung her over the edge. "Stop," she panted. "Stop." Robin moved to lie on her and Maryl put weak arms around her slim body.
"Was it okay?"
Maryl smiled at the worry in her voice. "Oh, it was good. It was very good."
"You were so quiet. I wasn't sure?"
Maryl rolled over and put Robin under her. "And how will you be? Will you be silent or will you echo from the hills?" Robin blushed and Maryl set about finding out.
She woke up spooned into Robin's back, the memory of her sweet moans still singing in her ears. A wave of desire made her whimper and she pressed her lips into Robin's shoulder. It wasn't enough and she raked her teeth over the spot. She heard Robin hiss in pain, but her hips wriggled back into her. Encouraged, Maryl carefully nipped her way down to slender hips. She lifted Robin's leg and bit her inner thigh, then buried her lips and tongue in Robin's sweet flesh. She tried to make it last, but Robin came a short time later.
Maryl lay her head on Robin's thigh. "Did I hurt you?"
She smiled at the lie, but let it go. "You shouldn't have let me sleep. I don't want to waste a single moment of this day."
Robin's fingers brushed through her hair. "It wasn't a waste for me. It was so sweet having your arms around me while you napped."
Maryl played absently with the dark curls inches from her face. "I hoped for this, but I had no idea how perfect it would be. I would have been content to spend another day just talking."
Robin stretched languorously. "I'd like it if we could do both."
"What did you tell your family about me?"
"Nothing, but they knew anyway."
"They're my family. They know me too well. And then there's Bruce."
Maryl looked up at Robin's face. "What about Bruce?"
Robin sat up with a nervous expression. "I have to tell you?He probably knows we've been making love."
"How could he know that?"
"I don't know," Robin shook her head. "He says it's like being aware of your big toe. For the most part, you don't think about it. It's just there. But if it hurts or feels especially good your awareness of it increases. Apparently he has an awareness of me inside of him and when I'm happy or sad he knows it."
Maryl sat up and thought about it. She placed her hand on Robin's breast and looked into her eyes. "So, he can feel this?"
Robin shook her head. "I don't think so. He's never admitted it anyway. What he feels is?emotional intensity. He knows I'm happy and he may know that part of what I feel is sexual."
"That must be pretty uncomfortable for you at times."
"For a long time I considered it a nightmare. But then I realized that my mom can do the same thing just by looking at me. And it's got to be harder for him than it is for me. I know all the time that if something really terrible were to happen to me, my brother would know and he would find me. I feel bad sometimes that I don't feel him in the same way."
"So he knew yesterday that you met someone?"
"Not exactly. He knew that I was inexplicably happy and it only made sense to him that I met you."
Maryl snuggled into her arms. "I've heard of twins being separated at birth who live out similar lives and even twins who can feel each other's pain, so it doesn't sound too strange."
"I'm inclined to think that since we're fraternal twins it's not a lack on my part, but a gift on his. It's like I'm an emotional radio station and he's the receiver."
"Do you ever feel obligated to feel good for his benefit?"
"Sure. But I think we all feel that to some degree. Don't you ever hide your feelings and only show people the good?"
Maryl snorted. "Of course."
"It's like that for me, too. The only difference is that he knows when it's a lie. But like I said, my mom sees through me, too, and to a lesser extent, so do my other brothers. But that's sort of what family is. People who know you."
Maryl held back the urge to say that not all families were like that. She didn't want to introduce anything depressing into their conversation. It occurred to her that she was doing exactly what they had just talked about and the irony made her smile.
"What did they think about all this at your camp?" Robin asked.
"I didn't tell them either." She remembered that she had to sing and groaned.
"What is it?"
Maryl shook her head and started to get up. "Something they want me to do later. I'm not talking about it without a beer in my hand. Are you hungry?"
Robin started to get up and Maryl stopped her. She waded across the river and untied the inner tube. Dragging it behind her, she pulled it up onto the sand next to the blanket and opened the cooler. "I hope you like peanut butter and jam sandwiches."
"What kind of jam?"
"I love it."
Maryl handed her a sandwich and a beer, then helped herself.
"What do you have to do later?"
Maryl took a long drink of beer and her eyes watered at the cold bite of it. "Eva promised to make us a cobbler if we picked berries today. Since I'm 'goofing off', as they put it, they seem to think that I should have to do something special for them in order to share in it."
"And that would be?"
Maryl grimaced. "Sing."
Robin grinned. "That doesn't sound so bad."
"You haven't heard me sing."
"You have a beautiful voice. I'd love to hear you sing."
Maryl bit into her sandwich and shook her head.
"Come on," Robin pleaded. "Sing something for me."
Robin's eyes opened wide. "No?"
"I'd sing for you if you asked me."
Maryl shrugged. "I'm not asking."
Robin laughed in disbelief. "You allow me to make love to you, but you won't sing for me?"
"Singing and making love are not at all related."
"Then I must not be doing it right."
Maryl rolled her eyes and held up a hand. "Don't even try and guilt me into it."
"Will you at least tell me why you won't sing?"
"Because I'm tone deaf. I can't sing."
"Oh, please. Don't you listen to the radio? Half of today's best selling recording artists can't sing. That doesn't stop them."
"Well, they all sound good to me. I can't tell the difference."
"I refuse to believe that someone with a voice as beautiful as yours can't sing."
"I guess it was a trade off. I got a nice speaking voice and no singing ability." Robin continued to eat her lunch, but she was obviously planning something and it made Maryl nervous. "What are you thinking?"
"I'm trying to decide how to make you sing for me."
Maryl laughed. "Give it up, Robin. It's never going to happen. You can't make me sing."
Robin finished her sandwich and reached for an apple. "I have four brothers. They provided me with a thorough education in the arts of manipulation and force. I'm reasonably sure that I can make you do anything I want."
Such a bold statement shocked Maryl and she felt her hackles go up. "I can't believe you would say such a thing. You would force me to sing for you?"
Robin grinned and bit into the apple with a crunch. "You could just do it and I won't have to be unpleasant. It's up to you."
Maryl was suddenly on very uncertain ground. It occurred to her that she really didn't know Robin, regardless of how intimate they had become. She had no way of knowing what Robin was capable of in order to get what she wanted. She was tempted to sing just to avoid finding out. "What are you going to do?"
"I haven't decided yet." Robin stared at her apple, looking for her next bite. "This apple is really good. Very sweet."
Maryl sat with her lunch in one hand and a beer in the other. She wasn't sure what to do. Sing and endure Robin's ridicule or refuse and suffer the consequences. Robin seemed totally calm and Maryl found that even more distressing than threats.
Robin finished her apple and tossed the core in the river. "Thank you for lunch."
"There's more." Maryl swallowed nervously.
"Maybe later." Robin swung around behind Maryl and put her arms around her waist. "Eat. I want to make love to you."
Maryl forced herself to finish her sandwich while Robin nuzzled her neck and ear. It was hard to stay scared when Robin's lips raised such delicious sensations. She felt herself weakening and after a final mouthful of beer, she turned in Robin's arms and pulled her mouth down for a kiss. Robin was more knowledgeable about her body this time and she deliberately brought Maryl to the edge of orgasm and held her there.
"Does this feel good?"
Maryl was all but crying for release. "Yes!"
"Do you want to come?"
"Will you sing for me?"
Maryl hesitated and Robin's caress stilled. She groaned. "Not fair. Please."
"Promise me," Robin said.
She felt Robin's fingers move in a reminder and then stop again. She was too close to endure much more, but she couldn't let herself surrender to such blatant manipulation. "No."
Robin's laughter accompanied renewed stroking and Maryl came in a blaze of light and sound. She heard herself cry out and was shocked at herself. At the same time, however, allowing her passion voice at the height was remarkably satisfying both physically and emotionally. "That was mean," she gasped.
Robin lowered her to the ground and lay on her. "It would have been mean if I had held out for your promise, but I wanted you to come. You weren't quiet that time," she said proudly. "I'll bet they heard you in camp."
"Whose camp?" Maryl giggled.
"Both." Robin kissed her way from ear to neck and stopped at a point just below her jaw. "This is where I'm going to put it."
"A monster hickey."
"No hickeys," Maryl said quickly. "They'll see it."
"A big old fat hickey right there. Unless you sing for me."
"You wouldn't," Maryl laughed.
Robin's voice was quiet and sure. "I promise you that I will. You have ten seconds to decide."
Maryl sputtered and objected as Robin counted down. She tried to get away, but Robin had her pinned and she couldn't fight back. "Wait!" she screamed out as Robin's mouth found its mark. "Wait."
"Yes or no?" Robin grinned.
Maryl wasn't really angry, but it was the next closest thing. "I am so going to get you back for this."
"Is that a yes?"
"You have to say it," Robin pressed.
Maryl wiggled and still couldn't escape. "Yes, I will sing for you." Robin kissed her mouth quickly and backed off. Maryl sat up and glared at her. "I ought to give you a hickey."
Robin held her arms wide. "Go ahead. Not only do I deserve it, my family will get a kick out of it."
Maryl ended up singing Happy Birthday after drinking a second beer for courage. Robin's face beamed with excitement as her small voice mangled the brief tune.
"That wasn't nearly as bad as I expected," Robin said as she hugged her.
Maryl mumbled into her shoulder. "I feel like an idiot."
Robin laughed. "You're adorable, Maryl, but you have to sing with enthusiasm or it just won't work."
"You heard how bad I was."
Robin kissed her face. "You can't miss the cobbler. The berries around here are wonderful. Now, what are you going to sing?"
Maryl hedged and whined, but Robin was so loving, attentive and relentless that she gave in and began to enjoy herself. Robin taught her a song that made her laugh and they sang it over and over until Maryl had it down pat.
"One more time," Robin urged, "and then I'll leave you alone."
Maryl took a deep breath and sang. "Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I'm gonna go eat worms. Big fat short ones, long tall skinny ones, I love the way they squirm?" She sang it straight through at full voice, laughing as Robin picked her up in a bear hug and swung her around.
"That was perfect! Sing it just like that and you'll knock their socks off!"
Maryl hid her face. "I can't believe I'm going to sing for cobbler."
"Not for cobbler," Robin laughed. "To prove that they can't scare you off or bully you."
"That was different."
Robin shrugged. "Because you secretly wanted me to force you."
Play erupted and Maryl chased Robin through the river and around trees, shrieking and laughing until she managed to pin her against a rock and kiss her. The dreamy feel to the day increased and they made love and talked and made love again.
Maryl looked with regret at the sun's position and knew it was time to go. She snuggled deeper into Robin's body. "I don't ever want to leave. I want to stay here forever."
"I can build a fire," Robin offered. "We could sleep here. You never did try out the air mattress."
"I wish I could."
"Let's do it," Robin begged.
"They're going to start looking for me soon. If I don't come back and they can't find me, they'll call Search and Rescue." She closed her eyes as Robin kissed her forehead.
"Can you come back tomorrow?"
"I think I accidentally agreed to stay in camp tomorrow. I could have kicked myself, but I couldn't think of a way out of it without hurting Wendy's feelings." She could see Robin's disappointment. "Maybe I could get away for a little while in the afternoon, but I can't promise. I resent feeling obligated to spending time with them. I like some of them all right, but they're not my friends. They're just people I know."
"It's okay, Maryl. I'll be here at one tomorrow and I'll stay for a couple of hours. If you can't come I'll understand that it's not because you don't want to be here."
Maryl leaned on an elbow so she could see Robin's face better. "The next day is my last full day here, you know. I don't care what happens at camp. I want to spend every minute of it with you."
Robin smiled. "Then I can live with not seeing you tomorrow if that's what happens."
Maryl kissed her for being so understanding and being so flexible about it. Working together they cleaned up the beach and packed their things. They shared a last fiery kiss that threatened to make them late, then turned and went their separate ways.
It had been such an incredible, amazing, passionate, unforgettable, wild and utterly enjoyable day that Robin couldn't even feel bad about not seeing Maryl the next day. She grinned and laughed and sang to herself as she walked, almost forgetting to stop and put her clothes back on before arriving at camp.
Her oldest nephew, Jonny, was the first person she saw and she waved to him as he ran to join her.
"Aunt Robin! Aunt Robin! I caught a fish!"
"Uh huh!" He puffed his chest out proudly as they walked. "Daddy said we could eat it. Do you want some?"
"Absolutely!" Robin suspected it was not going to be a pleasant experience and she resolved to do something rotten to Eric in return. "Congratulations!"
"Can I pull your tube?"
Robin handed over the rope and he proudly marched in front of her, the tube dragging him more than he was pulling it. When they reached the trail up to camp, Robin hefted the cooler in her arms. Jonny flipped the tube up and used the inner netting to balance it on his head.
"Daddy says you had a date."
"Something like that."
"What did you do?"
Robin smiled. "Oh, we rode in a limousine and went to dinner, then we went to a movie and did some dancing."
Johnny was quiet for a moment. "There's no limousines or movies in camping."
"There's no fooling you, is there?"
"You always tease us and make up stories," he complained.
"And you always figure it out," she said fondly. "I like that you're so smart."
Jonny beamed through the netting at her.
"There you are, dear."
Robin looked up and into her mother's eyes. "Am I too late for dinner?"
Her mother's eyes searched her face as Jonny marched on past and apparently she liked what she saw. She put her arm around Robin's shoulders. "It's good to see you happy again. It breaks my heart to see you miserable."
Robin leaned past the cooler and kissed her cheek. "I love you, Mom."
"Of course you do," her mother said briskly. "I raised my kids up right."
Robin laughed and headed for the cooking area.
"Look out for Bruce," her mother warned. "He seems to think?"
"There you are!" Bruce's tenor rang out. "You dog!"
Robin set her burden down and Bruce lifted her into the air. "Put me down, you ape!" She twisted his ears and laughed, but he bounced her in his arms.
"I know what you've been doing," he hissed at her.
"You think you know," she corrected.
"You've been getting lucky almost constantly since about 2 hours after you left."
He looked pleased with himself and Robin colored sharply. "You're guessing!"
Bruce lowered her to the ground and hugged her. "I'm not guessing, Sis. She makes you happy."
"This isn't fair. How come you got all the psychic ability?"
"You got the good looks and the brains. I'm happy for you. I hope it works out."
Robin hugged him back. "You're the best, Bruce."
"About time you figured that out." He released her and punched her in the arm, then turned to the others and held his hand out. "Pay up, guys."
"You took bets?" Robin asked in embarrassed horror.
"Man's got to make a living."
Robin opened her little cooler and tossed out all the cans and bottles. She picked it up, half ice and half water, dumped it over him as he collected and then ran like hell. She didn't get far and she put up a good fight, but it wasn't until the wives took pity on her that Bruce was driven off. She wandered back to the campfire with them, picking burrs out of her hair.
"What's her name?" Julian's wife, Clarisa, asked.
"Maryl. She's blond; a little shorter, a little younger and gorgeous. You'd like her. She's got a great sense of humor."
"Do we get to meet her?"
"Probably not," Robin admitted with regret. "We haven't talked about the future at all."
Bruce's wife, Phoebe, took her hand. "So, did you really??"
Robin felt her face growing hot again. "Most of the day. It bugs me that he always knows about me and I never know about him."
Phoebe laughed. "Doesn't bother me at all. But I have to tell you, it sure makes him randy."
Robin covered her face with both hands and a groan. "I don't want to know things like that, Phebes." The wives laughed at her discomfiture and Robin dropped onto a log by the fire.
Jonny's fish turned out to be some sort of bottom feeder and there was just enough of it that everyone had to choke down a bite. Jonny was puffed up like an old bullfrog with pride and that just barely made it worth it. To keep her sex life out of the conversation, Robin sat next to Uncle Gus and listened to his hunting and fishing stories. If you relaxed with a beer in your hand, he was actually kind of fun to talk to and it made her feel closer to her dad because he figured prominently in most of Uncle Gus' tales.
Eventually, her family drifted off to bed and Robin pulled a lounge chair over by the fire. She watched the stars and wondered if Maryl was doing the same.
"Make some room for your mother."
Robin pulled her knees up and her mother sat down at the foot. At her mother's urging she placed her legs on her lap.
"I'm happy for you, honey, but I'm worried for you, too."
"I know," Robin said quietly. "I'm not worried exactly, but I know I'm not thinking clearly."
"Do you love her?"
"Yes and no. I barely know her, but I think I could love her."
"What happens at the end of this trip?"
"We are deliberately not talking about it. She lives over in Edgewater and she's happy there."
"Will you try to have a long distance relationship?"
"I hope so. I hate to think it could just be over." Their voices were soft and private.
"If it doesn't work out, what happens to your heart?"
Robin heard her mother's real question. "Will I go back to how I was? I hope not. I think a part of me knows that it will probably end when she goes home, but the part of me that was broken seems to be healing. I don't know what happened between Tammy and I; I probably never will, but it's in the past now. It wasn't before I met Maryl."
"What's she like?"
Robin's heart grew tender. "She's very pretty and she's clever. I think she's smart, too, but clever describes her better. She's really feisty, Mom, and she laughs at herself. I know she's recovering from a relationship, too, but I don't know anything about it. She works the front desk in a medical office. Her family lives in South Carolina and her dad calls her 'The Brat'."
Her mother laughed. "You know that we would all love to meet her."
"I think she'd fit right in, but I don't know if that's possible."
"Are you going to see her tomorrow?"
"She wasn't sure if she could get away. I'm going to wait for her for a bit in the afternoon, but I kind of think she won't make it." Robin brightened. "She promised me the next day though. That'll be the last time."
Robin's mother seemed to struggle for words. "I promised myself I wouldn't say it, but I can't help it. Be careful."
Robin sighed. "I think it's too late for that, Mom. But I promise not to sink into a huge depression over it. Okay?"
"I love my boys, Robin, but there's a special place in my heart that belongs only to you. There always will be."
Robin sat up and hugged her mother before she dragged herself off to bed.
She packed light for her next trip up river. She felt obligated to go, but she knew that Maryl wouldn't be there. It was a measure of that certainty that she didn't bother to take her clothes off before reaching the small beach. Arriving naked had become somewhat of a ritual and today it just wasn't necessary. It was still a pleasure to be alone in the place where they had made love. Robin imagined she could still hear Maryl's orgasmic cries echoing from the hills and the sound of her singing in the air.
She laughed at the memory. She really did have a hideous singing voice. The timbre was good, but it bore no resemblance to any known musical tones. Hearing her sing had been the most endearing thing about Maryl and she almost felt bad about encouraging her to sing to her camping buddies.
Robin sat in the sand and drank from a bottle of water while she remembered. She thought she heard her name and looked excitedly upstream, but Maryl wasn't there. She relaxed and heard it again. She stood up and searched, but there was still no sign of her. The sound came again and she turned to see Trevor downstream, waving his arms over his head.
"What?" She yelled back.
Robin took a few uncertain steps, instantly consumed by worry. "What?"
Robin still didn't understand, but he seemed excited rather than worried, so she jogged towards him. As she closed the distance, she called out. "What's going on?"
"Your girlfriend! She's at our camp!"
Robin almost tripped in surprise. "Is she okay?"
She slowed to a walk as she got close enough to see that he was winded. "What happened?"
"She walked up to Bruce like she knew him and asked him to invite her to stay. She was with some other women, but she didn't want them to know that we knew who she was. Mom was making a plan when Eric sent me for you."
Robin couldn't believe what she was hearing. "She's at our camp? Right now?"
"If I know Mom she is," he grinned. "Give me your pack. You can run faster without it." Robin shrugged out of her pack and handed it to him. "I ran all the way here," he explained. "I'm going to walk back."
Robin turned to go. "Thanks, Trey."
"Hey, Rob!" He said as she began to move away. "She's really built. Way to go."
Robin grinned in embarrassed pride. "Shut up, you pig." She broke into an easy lope and the terrain was no hindrance. She picked up her pace and began to hurdle rocks and cut around trees as if she was born to do it. Her lungs seemed to expand and she was in tune with her body in a way that included everything around her. She lost track of the mechanics of what she was doing and ran with full enjoyment and anticipation.
Before she knew it, she was running up the trail and into camp. Maryl was sitting at the picnic table with most of her family in attendance and Robin came to an abrupt halt. "Are you okay?"
"Of course she is," her mother snorted.
Maryl stood up and came to her. "I hope this was okay?"
Robin couldn't help it. She put her arms around her and hugged her tight.
"I had to see you and it was all I could think of," Maryl whispered in her ear.
Robin could feel her family watching and it made her uncomfortable. She took Maryl's hand. "We have to talk for a minute," she told them. She ignored their ribbing and led Maryl to a spot that overlooked the river. "It's completely okay that you're here. I just don't understand."
Maryl sighed. "My group banded together this morning and announced that I shouldn't be running off all the time. They had all sorts of lame reasons. They were worried: it was disruptive: it wasn't healthy for me to be alone: lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"
Robin grinned at the reference.
"It was like a damned intervention. I knew if I told them about you they would still object and if I had a fit and took off, they would come after me. I tried to kick back and let the day go, but the closer it got to noon, the more it hurt not to be able to see you and I felt bad that you would be stuck there waiting while I was trapped in camp."
"I didn't mind."
"I did!" Maryl's hands randomly plucked at Robin's shirt and ran over her shoulders. "So I thought about it and I hoped that if I could arrange an invitation to be with other people, they would have to let me stay or they'd look controlling. I wanted to get here before you left, but?"
Robin leaned in and kissed her. "How did you get here?"
"I offered to buy them all hot showers."
Robin laughed at her ingenuity.
"If you pay the day use fee you get access to the showers," Maryl explained. "They thought it was a peace offering. While they were showering, I found your camp-you all really do look alike, you know-and I just walked up to the closest one and introduced myself."
"He's handsome," Maryl teased, "but you're definitely the pretty one."
Robin hugged her again. "Not as pretty as you. So how did it all get worked out?"
"Bruce told me he would handle it. I went back and took a shower and when we were getting into the van, your mother and three of your brothers walked up. Your mom is a hoot. She invited us all to spend the day and have dinner. She suggested that one us might find one of her sons interesting."
Robin laughed. "I imagine that didn't go over well."
"Like lead feathers. I asked your mom if she was available and?"
Robin held onto Maryl's shoulder while she doubled over in laughter.
"?She took my arm and said that she might be. I thought Linda was going to start frothing at the mouth, but Bruce promised to keep me safe and see that I got back to camp later. I expect it will be really horrible when I go back, but I don't care. It'll just give me a good reason to split tomorrow."
"Oh, God," Robin laughed. "I wish I'd seen it."
"If they had seen you, they would have known by my face. Did you run all the way back?"
Robin pulled her in for another kiss. Mindful that there were people near, she kept it light. "You look good in clothes."
"So do you. But I wish?"
"We'll find some time later. I promise."
They walked back to camp hand in hand and Maryl was surrounded. She seemed comfortable so Robin let her go. It made her jealous to have to share her, so she walked over and sat down next to her mother to help shuck the corn for dinner. "Tell the truth, Mom. Were you tempted?"
Her mother laughed and slapped her arm. "You were right. She is feisty and clever."
"Did she really ask if you were available?"
"She sure did. Her companions were none too happy, I can tell you that. We invited the lot of them, but if it didn't make them mad it seemed to scare them. They took her aside and really lit into her, but she stuck to her guns. I hope she doesn't run into trouble with them."
Robin did, too. "I think they're just being protective. It's kind of a support group and maybe they feel threatened that she doesn't need as much support as they think she should have."
"Well, do-gooders tend to do the most damage. Your father always said that. They're so convinced they're right and they know what's best that they can't see the harm they do."
Robin remembered her father saying that exact thing. He had been a proud, opinionated man who believed that real Americans thought for themselves and left each other alone. "I miss Dad. I don't know how you manage."
"I just do, honey. I miss him terrible now and then, but I expect I'll see him again someday."
"If you behave yourself," Robin teased.
"For pity's sake, girl! I can't believe you talk to your old mother that way. And after all I've done for you. I was in labor for twenty-two hours to bring you into this world."
"You labored over Bruce for twenty-two hours," she corrected playfully. "I only took 9 minutes."
"Nine minutes over my knee will fix that smart mouth of yours."
Robin loved it when her mother teased like that. It made her want to giggle. She watched Maryl talking and laughing at the table as if she had known them all for years. "Thanks for helping her, Mom."
"Anything to make my baby girl happy."
Robin felt incredibly loved in that moment and wasn't sure how to express it. Trevor came up the path and she excused herself to go and get her pack from him. "Thank you, Trey. I really appreciate it."
"No problem." He reached into a cooler for beer and nodded at Maryl. "She seems to be fitting in just fine."
"You guys make it easy." Love bubbled up and she had to let it out. "You know, I never say it, but you guys are the best family a lesbian could have. It's never an issue with any of you that I fall in love with women. All I ever have to worry about is whether or not you'll like her and you guys had to worry about the same thing. I'm so lucky and I love you all so much."
Trevor squinted at her as if confused. "I think you've been spending too much time in the sun."
Robin shook her head and began to laugh as he walked away. Cards were being pulled out at the table and she went to join them.
All of the children and Uncle Gus were in bed and Robin had Maryl in her arms on a lounge chair. Her face was on a level with Maryl's neck and she lay in perfect contentment, breathing in the scent of her and listening as her family divulged all of her childhood secrets.
"?The way I heard it," Maryl laughed, "was that you threw her off."
"The whole thing was just a misunderstanding," Eric insisted. "I was only nine years old and I didn't understand physics."
"Or aerodynamics," Julian put in. "I still can't believe I got in trouble for that. It was your idea."
"You were the one who suggested that if we were going to do it right we should use the best sheets in the house."
Robin's mother rubbed at her face. "I still can't laugh about it. That was the most awful day. Trey was a toddler and he'd gotten away from me. I knew he was in the house, but I couldn't find him. I was looking under Bruce's bed-he had chicken pox-and he suddenly screamed and started crying about his arm and then Eric and Julian came pelting down the stairs hollering about how something didn't work. I knew they were up to no good so I followed them and I swear, I thought my little girl was dead."
It always made Robin's heart hurt when her mother talked about that day. That she was so affected by it, after more than thirty years, that she still couldn't find anything funny about it made Robin feel a little sick at how she must have felt way back then.
"She was covered with blood and Bruce was in some kind of pain and I couldn't find the baby?"
Robin whispered into Maryl's ear. "Look at Eric and Julian." They were both pale and guilt-ridden and Maryl nodded. "They're still paying for it."
"Hey," Trevor said. "Do you remember the frogs in the creek?"
Everybody laughed as if on cue and even her mother started to smile. "I thought it was very clever." She turned to face Maryl to explain. "When she was about 14, she started running around the neighborhood doing odd jobs, but she never had any money. We couldn't figure out what she was doing with it. It was only by accident that her father saw her in a pet store one day and got curious."
"She was buying frogs?" Maryl asked.
Bruce laughed and shook his head. "She was buying snakes."
Robin spoke just loudly enough to be heard by all. "The frogs were making so much racket I couldn't sleep. I had to do something." Maryl began to chuckle and Robin could feel the vibrations in her chest.
"She was turning snakes loose in the creek to eat the frogs," her mother said proudly. "By the end of summer it was pretty quiet."
"People still find wild pythons now and then," Trevor said. "I've seen a few myself."
"What about the time she stole Mr. Bertoldi's dog and gave her a haircut?" Julian noted.
"He wasn't taking care of her," Robin objected.
Eric piped in. "Remember the time she swiped Betsy's dad's Playboys and hid them under our mattresses only to rat us out to Mom?"
"Or when she busted Allen McIntyre's nose?" Bruce added.
"What about the time she made us cookies with chocolate Exlax instead of chocolate chips?"
"Or when she put Easter egg dye in the whipped cream and it turned our mouths green?"
"She cancelled all of my utilities on the second day in my first apartment," Trevor laughed.
"She voted for me as a write in on the cheerleader squad," Bruce grimaced.
"I remember coming home from our honeymoon," Phoebe said, "to find our house completely over run with little white mice."
"She glued my drawers shut. Twice!"
"Lies," Robin whispered to Maryl. "All lies. Don't pay any attention to them. They've been drinking."
Maryl leaned back into her and turned her face up. "So none of it is true?"
Robin hesitated for effect. "It was self-defense."
"Was it now?" Maryl laughed.
"They aren't telling all the stuff they did to me! Trey took my lesbian underwear to school for show and tell. Bruce told everyone I was a transsexual and took up donations for my operation. Julian sewed all of my pant legs shut and Eric used to put my hands in warm water while I slept to make me wet the bed. They were mean to me."
Everyone, including Maryl, was howling with laughter and Robin snorted in feigned disgust. She rose up on an elbow and surveyed them. "You all deserved it. Every bit."
Maryl rolled back and slipped her arm around Robin's waist. "Do you want me to believe that you were sweet and innocent?"
"That you were tormented and persecuted by these ruffians?"
"Okay," Maryl smiled. "I'll try."
"At least someone believes me." There was some easy-going teasing, but Robin was only aware that her breast was touching Maryl's. "Do you want to go for a drive?" she asked softly.
Maryl smiled and sat up. "I should get back to camp. It's awfully late."
Robin's mother stood up and pulled Maryl into a hug. "It was wonderful to meet you, dear. Feel free to come back anytime and if those friends of yours turn out to be more than you can handle, we'll see that you get home."
"Thank you. By the way, where was Trevor that day?"
"In his crib napping. Exactly where I left him."
Robin kicked Bruce in the leg while Maryl was laughing and demanded his truck keys. "Not a word," she warned.
"It doesn't take a psychic to know what you two will be doing," he laughed.
"You're a worm, Bruce."
"And you're a tom cat on the prowl."
Robin ignored the catcalls from the campfire and guided Maryl to the truck.
"I like your family a lot," Maryl said over the starting of the engine. "They seem like really great people."
"I like to think so."
"You're close to them."
Robin glanced at Maryl as she drove slowly out of the campground and headed slowly up the hill. "We're closer now than we were as children. That was one of the best things about growing up: getting to know each other as adults and finding out that we liked one another. I only wish my dad were still here. You would have liked him."
Maryl was watching intently out the front window, relentlessly curling a strand of hair around her finger.
"Are you worried about your group?" Robin asked with some concern.
Maryl shook her head slowly. "Not really. There's a turnout on your side coming up pretty quick. Pull into it."
Robin spotted it a few minutes later and guided the truck off the road. She set the parking brake and turned off the lights and engine. It was very dark and Maryl was just a shadow. The ticking of the motor was almost the only sound. Robin whispered, "What are you thinking about?"
"Nothing," Maryl said in an equally soft tone. "Just listening to you breathe. I can smell you-like rain and fresh mown grass. My heart is beating like a brass band on the Fourth of July."
"Mine, too. I don't remember ever aching to touch someone before. It's got to be the nicest pain there is."
Maryl's voice was soft and low. "Come over here."
Robin turned her back to Maryl and slid towards her over the bench seat. Arms came around her and she lay back into them with complete trust. She slid one arm around Maryl's waist and the other around her neck as Maryl began to kiss her slowly. She seemed different in the dark and Robin let her set the pace. Their lips and tongues slid over and around and into each other in the most delightful fashion and it made Robin dizzy. She was aware when Maryl's hand slid inside her shirt to cup a breast and Robin ached at her touch.
Maryl ran her hand over her breasts, content to feel them inside the cotton bra. She eventually reached around her and deftly unhooked it. "I want you naked," Maryl whispered into her mouth.
Robin nodded breathlessly as Maryl's fingers moved to her shorts. Willing to do anything she asked, it seemed only a moment and Robin was nude and kneeling astride Maryl's legs. They kissed deeply as Maryl's hands explored her in the dark-as interested in the structure of her back as in the texture of her inner thigh.
"Maryl," Robin gasped as her passion thickened. "Do you know what you do to me?"
"Yes," Maryl said huskily. "I make you crazy. I make you hot." Her lips closed briefly on a throbbing nipple. "I make you need it."
Robin did need it. She tried to get hands under Maryl's clothing and was diverted. She tried to rub her groin on Maryl's leg or hip and was held back. She tried to push Maryl's hands between her legs and didn't have the strength. She didn't think it was possible to be this aroused without coming, but Maryl was determined to take her time and Robin could hear herself whimpering. "Please, Maryl. Please, now!"
Maryl's mouth moved from breast to breast, licking and biting and sucking until Robin gradually stiffened at the unbearable pleasure she felt. It became too much and she shuddered through what felt like an orgasm, but took away none of the passion she felt.
"So beautiful," Maryl groaned.
Robin was frantic now and her teeth chattered helplessly as Maryl's hand slid between her legs. Fingers entered her and Robin dropped her head to Maryl's shoulder and began to rock on the heel of her hand. In only a few blissful moments, she began to come in slow, inexorable waves and she chased each and every one to its end.
"Oh, Maryl. Sweet Maryl." She wrapped her arms around Maryl's shoulders as she was rocked to and fro. "I don't even know if I can describe it."
"Sh. Don't talk, Robin. Just let me hold you."
Robin buried a hand in soft hair and relaxed. She was perfectly content to stay in Maryl's arms till daybreak. Her skin had ceased to exist where Maryl wasn't touching it and when the rocking came to an end Maryl sighed.
"Time to go, Robin."
"What about you?"
"Feeling you come like that was all I needed and we still have tomorrow."
Maryl stood in the dark and listened to the sound of the truck as it got further and further away. Knowing they would be together in the morning left her feeling peaceful and content. When the sounds of the night and distant voices were all she could hear, Maryl carefully walked through the night towards the flickering campfire. The entire group was sitting around the fire and their voices stilled as she approached.
"You guys should have stayed," she said brightly in hopes that it would diffuse any hostility. "They were really sweet people."
"I guess that means we aren't," Brooke grumbled.
"I'm just saying that you would have had a good time."
"I think something is going on," Linda said suspiciously. "You disappear every day-all day-and you just happen to get invited to spend the day with total strangers?"
"They invited all of us," Maryl said firmly. "You are the ones who didn't want to make new friends."
Kirsten eyed her carefully. "I agree with Linda. I think you met someone on the river and you don't want us to know. I can still tell when a woman is falling in love."
Maryl ignored the oddness of that statement and put her hands on her hips. "Is that what all of you think?"
Wendy ducked her head, but the others stared at her with a variety of emotions. Eva cleared her throat. "We think you arranged the?scenario?at the showers today. The truth is, if you have met someone, it's not really our business. But we are worried about you and we feel we have a right to express concern over your actions. We only have each other to count on up here and you are isolating yourself more and more from our support."
"We feel obligated to watch out for your safety," Noreen said gently. "If anything bad happens to you, we are the ones who will have to deal with it."
"When we accepted that responsibility," Eva said, "you accepted some responsibility, too."
Maryl knew there was truth in what they said. Something in her gut told her there was a flaw in their argument, but she couldn't find it. She opened her mouth to tell them about Robin, but Linda cut in angrily.
"We have a right to know where you're going and who you're with. You owe us that."
Linda's attitude pushed all the wrong buttons and her temper flared. "I have been very clear about where I've been. If you don't want to make friends, that's your business. I do. That's my business. The first time I went off alone, I invited every single one of you to go with me and no one wanted to. That's fine with me. But don't start whining now because you didn't go. If what you want is for me to hang around and wallow in pain with you-well, I'm sorry. I just can't do that. Not all day, every day."
"Not ever," Brooke accused.
"I resent your accusation that what we do is wallow in pain," Linda growled.
"I'm so sorry," Maryl snapped. She could feel her anger spiraling out of control and she desperately wanted to hold it back, but she couldn't stop. "Please forgive me for speaking so carelessly. I just have a hard time being nice when other people try to run my life. Especially when they aren't doing such a great job of running their own."
"That's not fair," Noreen objected.
"Neither is ganging up on me! I had a good time tonight, which none of you wanted to be a part of, and now I'm getting grief for it! You ganged up on me first thing this morning and now you're doing it again! How is that fair?" Maryl jerked backwards as Eva stood up and attempted to take her arm.
"Hey, let's calm down," Eva said anxiously. "There's no need for all of us to get upset. All we want is to make sure that you're safe."
"By letting this group dictate to me?"
"Not necessarily. Come on, Maryl. Come sit down and we'll work this out."
Maryl let herself be guided to the remaining lawn chair. She kept her back teeth firmly together in an effort to control her tongue, but she wanted to kick the fire around and scream.
Eva sat down and looked everyone over. "Let's not lose sight of the fact that Maryl is a grown woman and has proven that she is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Our purpose is only to make sure she doesn't come to harm over the next day and a half." She turned her eyes on Maryl. "Now. None of us are stupid. You've met someone. We need your reassurance that you are safe with her."
Maryl bit her tongue hard to keep anger from turning to tears. "I am."
"I knew it!" Linda crowed.
"That's enough, Linda!" Eva was angry. "You're making it harder for her to trust us and I won't have it. Whether she knows it or not, she needs us and you're deliberately antagonizing her. If you can't show some respect and understanding, go sit in the van till we're done."
Linda tried not to look defeated, but Maryl could see it. That Eva was willing to set Linda down told her that Eva's concern was genuine and she felt bad about getting angry.
"Okay," Eva said. "You've met someone. We can all see that you have feelings for her. Congratulations."
Maryl looked down at Wendy's hand on her arm and the first tear escaped.
"Does she make you happy?" Wendy asked in her soft voice.
Maryl's tears flowed instantly and she couldn't hold back a sob of longing. "Yes," she whispered. She put her head back and began breathing through her mouth to make herself stop crying.
"Did you meet her at the campground?" Noreen asked.
"No. On the river. By accident."
"But she was there today."
Maryl nodded as she got herself under control and wiped her tears away.
Kirsten leaned forward. "What about your feelings for Alaine? Pain doesn't just go away."
"Maybe not," Maryl agreed. "But after a while it becomes background noise and you can stop listening to it. Granted, what Alaine did hurt me, but I don't want her back. I stopped wanting her when I found her in my bed with those men. The hope that she was the one for me is fading slowly, but the wanting died in an instant."
"Why did you join our group?" Brooke asked.
Maryl thought it over. "I guess I wanted?permission to stop hurting."
"Good answer," Noreen blurted out. She barked a laugh, paused and started laughing again. "Permission to stop hurting. I like that." She shook her head and chuckled softly to herself.
"Does this new woman give you that permission?" Eva asked.
"Yes." Maryl reconsidered. "No. Being with her allows me to give myself permission."
Brooke frowned. "I think you're in denial."
Maryl sighed impatiently. "At what point does it stop being denial and become getting on with my life? It's been almost 4 months since I kicked Alaine out. Do I have to wait a certain amount of time? How much? Six months? A year? Three years? When do I get to say it's over and move on?"
Brooke spread her hands out. "I just don't think you've dealt with it yet. Not really."
Maryl felt exasperated with Brooke. "Why?"
"Well, you hardly ever talk about it and you never cry?"
"I cried plenty," Maryl admitted. "I just don't cry about it in front of you. I didn't realize it was a requirement."
"I'm just saying?"
"Everyone handles it differently," Eva interrupted. "It's not right to judge the depth of someone else's pain by your own standards. Some people cry, some get angry, some never get over it and some seem unaffected. Personally, I think Maryl is over the worst of her issues with Alaine. Time will handle the rest."
Maryl was grateful for the support.
"What does concern me," Eva said directly to Maryl, "is that you don't create new pain to replace the old. I'm concerned about this new relationship. What do you really know about her? How does she feel about you? What happens at the end of our trip? And how will your heart handle it if it's over?"
"She's a good person," Maryl said quickly. "I know enough about her to make that judgement. And I think she has feelings for me, too. But?I think it's a spur of the moment affair for both of us. I expect we'll go our separate ways."
"How do you feel about that?"
Maryl brought her urge to cry under control before she answered. "I think it's the way it has to be, but that doesn't have to ruin our time together."
Linda finally spoke. "Are you going to see her tomorrow?"
Maryl lifted her chin defiantly. "Yes. I am. I'm leaving as soon as I wake up and I don't know when I'll be back. I promise to be here before we break camp the next day. I would appreciate it if no one came looking for me unless there's an emergency."
Linda snorted her displeasure. At Eva's glare she got up and stomped off to bed. "How far down river will you be?"
"It's a 45 minute walk or so. We're right on the water, out in the open. I won't be hard to find."
"And you trust her to keep you safe? She knows what she's doing?"
"Yes," Maryl said confidently. She thought of Bruce's link to Robin. "She stays in touch with one of her brothers constantly. If anything happens he'll know immediately and they can run there in 15 minutes or so."
Eva smiled. "That's all I care about, Maryl. I just want to know that you're safe. Just keep it all in perspective. If you need to talk about it, you know we're here for you."
Maryl nodded and Eva took one of the lanterns with her to the tent. Kirsten followed her and a moment later Brook did, too. She could see the outlines of the four women on the
tent's walls; the murmur of their voices indistinct.
"So," Noreen said with affected casualness. "Is she any good?"
Maryl blushed head to toe. "Amazing." Wendy sweet laughter danced through the air like butterflies on Ecstasy. The sound was contagious and she and Noreen had to join in.
Robin had packed everything she thought they might need or want for the next day in the largest pack she could find as soon as she got back to camp. She left it next to the inner tube and cooler by the river and went to bed. She dozed fitfully, afraid she would oversleep and just before 3 in the morning, she gave up.
Moving quietly, she dressed, grabbed a flashlight and picked up her gear. In the dark, her 15-minute run of the previous afternoon took more than an hour and a half of careful navigation through the water. By the time she reached their beach, her legs were numb from the knee down and her teeth were chattering. She knew it was foolish to put herself in such straits, but she didn't care.
She wasn't surprised that Maryl wasn't there yet. She didn't expect her for hours and with almost two hours till dawn, her first order of business was building a fire. She curled up next to it wrapped in a blanket and allowed her body to warm up before turning the beach into a campsite. She had the coffee almost ready when she spotted a flashlight bobbing towards her in the pre-dawn darkness. She stood opposite of the fire so Maryl could see her and tried to contain her joy. Maryl dropped her pack and jacket to the ground and Robin held open the blanket that was draped over her shoulders to welcome her into her arms.
"You're so warm," Maryl said with a contented sigh. "And you've got a fire and coffee going. How long have you been here?"
"A little over an hour. I couldn't sleep."
"I didn't think you'd be here yet."
"Can I make you breakfast?"
Maryl chuckled. "How much stuff did you bring?"
"Everything I could think of," Robin admitted. "At least, everything I could get here in one trip."
Maryl looked around and back to Robin's face. "Through the water? In the dark?"
"I know it was stupid," Robin said. "I couldn't help it." She smiled as Maryl snuggled closer and held her tightly. "I won't do it again."
"Do you sit around thinking up ways to impress me?"
Robin laughed. "If I'd been thinking I wouldn't have lost the feeling in my feet." Maryl looked at her with concern. "I'm fine. What did you bring?"
"Food, mostly. Is there room in your cooler?"
"We'll make room."
They both laughed at how much food they had when combined. "Maybe we should send out invitations for company," Maryl suggested.
"Sorry," Robin said. ""I don't want to share you today."
Maryl sat between Robin's legs, the blanket around them both as they drank coffee and watched the sun come up.
"Did they give you a hard time last night?" Robin wondered.
"Some. But we worked it out."
Robin brushed blond hair to the side and pressed her lips to the soft skin of her neck. "When do you have to go back?"
"Before they start breaking camp tomorrow morning."
Robin almost cried with gratitude for a full 24 hours with Maryl. She rested her cheek against Maryl's shoulder and her heart filled with love. She knew she loved Maryl. She had known during her run to camp the previous day, when her body and the universe had become one and the only thing that existed was her need to see her. She wanted to say the words out loud, but she somehow felt that Maryl wasn't ready to hear them and she didn't want to jeopardize this last day together. Somehow, sometime, before Maryl had to leave, she would say the words. She needed to say them.
"What are you thinking about?"
Robin drew her awareness back into her body. "How lucky I am to be here with you." She smiled as Maryl wiggled closer into her arms.
"What did you bring for breakfast?"
"Cold cereal with banana. Do you want some?"
Robin quickly put it together and brought the bowl back to her.
"Aren't you going to have some?" Maryl asked.
"I only brought one bowl and one spoon." At Maryl's look of confusion, Robin explained. "I want to be as close as possible to you. I want to share everything with you." Maryl's hand came to her cheek and Robin placed a kiss in it. "Is that weird?"
"Yes," Maryl grinned. "But it's a sweet kind of weird."
Robin let Maryl control the spoon and ate when it was given to her. She made a second bowl using the last of the cereal and returned the favor. They let the fire die with the last of the morning chill and began to undress each other wordlessly. They lay together on the blanket, passion present but quiet and slowly learned each other all over again: feeling the curve of waist into hip; the tenderness of the back of a knee; the flexibility of fingers; the arch of a foot; the texture of throat; the shape of ears. They listened to each other's heartbeats and took each other's pulse.
Maryl was lying face down, arms stretched over her head and Robin watched her hand as it softly stroked in a lazy rhythm from shoulder to ass. She pressed her lips to a bare shoulder before laying her cheek on the spot. She let her hand start making decisions and enjoyed the feeling of Maryl's ass under her circling caresses. She listened to Maryl's breathing and heart rate change as her fingers began to randomly dip farther and farther between her legs. She almost couldn't breathe when Maryl deliberately spread her legs apart and Robin took full advantage. Closing her eyes, she slid two fingers inside of Maryl's moist heat and stroked in a gentle cadence.
Her awareness was focused on her hand and it was difficult to frame an answer. "Hmm?"
"That feels really good."
Robin nodded and completely lost track of anything outside of the sensations in her fingers. She couldn't tell when it was that Maryl first began to raise her hips to meet her. When she realized how fully involved Maryl was she moved to kneel between her open thighs and slid a third finger in as well.
Maryl rose to her hands and knees and began to writhe. Robin's own desire mounted at the enjoyment Maryl displayed and she reached forward to caress her swinging breasts. To feel a woman-this woman-taking pleasure from her with such abandonment brought Robin's desire to a crescendo of emotion. She cried out in sync with Maryl, the sound of her name ringing in her ears and followed Maryl to the ground as she collapsed.
She knew how vulnerable you could feel after a particularly powerful orgasm and didn't want Maryl to feel embarrassed or alone. She spoke soothing words until she realized that Maryl wasn't listening. She was asleep. With a soft laugh, Robin withdrew her hands and sat up. "I don't think I ever put anyone to sleep before," she told the river. "I'm not sure what to do."
Wildflowers across the river caught her eye and she waded over to pick a bouquet. Tying it together with strands of her hair, she placed it where Maryl would see it, then lay down next to her and followed her into sleep.
She woke gradually, aware of the smell of sunscreen and Maryl's hands working the lotion into her legs. She hummed to let Maryl know she was awake and stretched like a cat. She felt all of her muscles relax under the thorough touch and she smiled when Maryl turned her over. The sun was not yet high so she knew they had not lost too much of the day and she watched Maryl's face as she worked. Her tiny bouquet was tucked behind one ear. "Where'd you get the flowers?"
Maryl smiled knowingly. "A woodland fairy, I suppose."
"Awfully nice of her."
"I thought so, too."
Maryl eased her leg over Robin's hips and settled down. Robin watched as she squeezed more lotion into her hands and rubbed them together. She was looking forward to those hands on her breasts, but Maryl saved them for last and then was very careful not to get any lotion on her areolas. "What if my nipples burn?" Robin asked.
"I'll kiss them better," Maryl teased.
Robin pushed her a little to one side. "You're blocking my sun."
Maryl laughed and pinned her arms. "Maybe a little preventative attention is a good idea."
Robin held her breath as Maryl slowly leaned over to kiss each one. "More," she whispered. She watched, fascinated, as Maryl's tongue circled her tightening flesh; excited to see how Maryl was making her feel so good. She watched her nipples disappear into her mouth one at a time and fought the desire to close her eyes and give herself up to it. "Last night?in the truck...I think I came?just from what?you're doing right now."
"I know," Maryl said between kisses. "It was very exciting?You were incredible?I could feel how much you enjoyed it?Maybe we'll try it again?"
Robin didn't think it was repeatable, but she enjoyed the attempt completely. Maryl only let her bask in the afterglow for a moment before dragging her to her feet.
"Come on, Robin. This is wonderful, but I need to move around a little. Let's go for a walk."
Dressed in sneakers and smiles, they forded the river and headed into the trees. It did feel good to walk and Robin's strength returned. "Tell me your coming out story," she prompted.
Maryl had a stick in her hand and swung it idly as they slowly strolled. "Like most people it wasn't an event so much as a process. I came out when I was 19, but I started messing around with girls when I was nine."
Maryl's voice took on a hint of fond remembrance. "A neighbor girl and I used to?play. It wasn't sexual at the time, but in retrospect it was extremely sensual. We gave each other massages and slept naked together, but there was no sexual touching or kissing. We were very casual about it, but I remember delighting in the way my body felt when she looked at me."
"Sounds innocent enough."
"It was, but it was golden, too." Maryl smiled to herself and then glanced at Robin. "Then, in seventh grade, I had every class with a girl named Debbie and we naturally became friends. We were twelve that year and we spent the night at each other's house all the time. We used to practice kissing. We slept in our underpants and we hugged a lot, but aside from kissing, we didn't touch very much. I think we knew it would be crossing a line we weren't quite ready to cross. I'm sure she wanted to as much as I did, but we were so young. In my mind, she was very much my girlfriend, but even so, I didn't really understand what that meant."
"Whatever happened to her?"
"Her family moved away. I wonder now and then if she grew up to be gay as well. She was far more aggressive than I was in what she wanted. If not for her, we wouldn't have done anything at all."
Robin recognized the far away look in Maryl's eyes and she waited for it to clear before pressing. "Then what happened?"
Maryl laughed without pleasure. "Then I hit puberty. That was such a terrible time for me. I wanted so badly to be happy and loved and I hated everything and everyone so passionately. I can hardly stand to remember how awful I felt. Of course, the root cause was that I hated myself for feeling so different and not being able to identify why. Everyone expected things from me. My family is very image oriented so I ended up being a cheerleader. I hated it. I tried so hard to be straight-I really did. I dated the boys my friends were all excited about. I even slept with some of them, but the more straight I tried to be the more unhappy I got and I couldn't even figure out why I was so miserable. I wasn't even allowed to express any of it."
Robin knew that being a teenager was hard on most people, but Maryl's teen years sounded like a nightmare. "Society, peer pressure and family are very powerful things. It's almost impossible to fight them. It's too bad we don't live in a society geared to helping us through that stage of life. How did you ever get out of it?"
Maryl smiled. "I fell in love with a girl I worked in a video store with. I was 19 and she was 20. It was scary and torrid and spine tingling all at once. Pretty typical really."
"And your family? How did they take it?"
"Badly." Maryl looked up at Robin. ""Are you sure you want to hear about this?"
"Only if you want to tell it."
Maryl sighed. "My mother drank most of a bottle of whiskey in about five minutes flat and cried till she passed out. My father called his campaign manager."
"He was up for re-election as a County Supervisor and he was concerned about damage control."
Robin was hesitant to be critical, but it seemed the only thing to say. "That seems rather?cold."
"It was pretty devastating at the time. Here I had finally figured out what was wrong with me and it turned out to be a wonderful thing, but my family went totally berserk. My father frowned at me for two years straight and my mother cried every time she saw me for almost 6 months. My sisters were almost as bad. My oldest sister found God and apparently he told her that I was one of Satan's imps. She still prays for me. My other sister thinks it's a phase and one of these days I'll stop embarrassing the family and come to my senses."
"You're not kidding, are you?"
Maryl shook her head. "No, I'm not. I actually toned it down quite a bit. I moved out here about 10 years ago to get away from them. I call them four times a year just to be annoying and keep my name in the will." She laughed and put her arm around Robin's waist. "What about you? What's your coming out story?"
Robin shook her head to clear it of the appalling story she had just heard. "Unlike you, my coming out was an event. You heard a part of it already, but I'll fill you in on the rest of the story. I was 13 and I was at a slumber party with a couple of girlfriends. Unbeknownst to the parents?"
Robin lifted an eyebrow at Maryl's tone. "It's my story and I'll tell it how I like." She smiled at Maryl's laugh and went on. "Okay. Like I was saying, we snuck boys into the party sometime after midnight. I didn't care one way or the other, it was just something you did back then. Bruce was one of them, by the way. We ended up playing Spin the Bottle and it was all very funny and weird. Kids kept going into the closet and we would tease them and they'd come out and be embarrassed-it was all very juvenile. Anyhow, it finally landed on me and I jumped up thinking that Susan was my partner. She was sitting directly across from me. I was waiting for her to stand up and the boy next to her, Allen McIntyre, stood up instead." Robin could see Maryl trying to place where she had heard that name. "He grabbed my hand and tried to drag me to the closet, but I jerked away from him. To make a long story short, I told him I didn't want to kiss him. I wanted to kiss Susan. In the instant I said it, I knew I only ever wanted to be with girls and I was perfectly fine with it. Allen called me a freak of nature and I blasted him square in the nose."
"Ah! I remember now."
"That was the only time in my life that I hit anyone in anger. It was the strangest thing."
"He saw it coming," Robin said with a wry laugh. "I mean, I stepped back with my fist and just zeroed right in on him. I saw his eyes watch it coming. I don't think he believed I was really going to hit him, but he had to know from the beginning that I was winding up for it." Robin shook her head. "His nose exploded; blood and snot everywhere. I had nightmares about it for months."
"How bad did you hurt him?"
"I blacked his eyes and his nose was a swollen mess, but he healed up fine in just a few weeks. It pretty much ruined my high school years though. Every one knew I was gay and that made it hard for me to make friends because everyone was suspect if they spent too much time with me. Poor Bruce had it almost as bad."
"It must have been hard on you."
Robin shrugged. "You get used to what you can't change. I dealt with it by being belligerently proud."
"So how old were you the first time you were with a girl?"
"Not a girl," Robin laughed with some embarrassment. "My first time was my first everything. My 21st birthday, my first gay bar, my first kiss, my first sexual encounter, my first orgasm-everything."
"What was her name?"
"Peg. She was 36 and she ate me up. I was scared to death." Robin blushed remembering that night. "It never even occurred to me to say no. She put me on the back of her motorcycle, took me to a cheap motel and turned me into silly putty. Looking back, the sex really wasn't that memorable, but I had nothing to measure her against and I thought she was wonderful."
"How do I measure up?"
Robin looked at her in surprise. "You can't be serious. I mean, can't you tell how good you are by how?? You aren't like anyone else I've ever been with. It's like comparing?raisins and passion fruit."
"I just wanted to hear you say it." Maryl hugged Robin's arm. "Nice analogy, by the way."
Robin chuckled at herself for falling into Maryl's trap. "I love it when you use big words," she teased. "It makes me feel all gooey inside."
"Oh!" Maryl exclaimed. "Speaking of gooey?I can't believe I let you talk me into singing for those cretins."
"I was wondering how that went," Robin grinned.
"It was humiliating! Kirsten actually flinched and Brooke covered her ears. Linda patted me on the head like a dog."
"Was the cobbler good?"
"Delicious, but I'm not sure it was worth it. I told you I couldn't sing."
"You sing fine," Robin said truthfully. "You just can't carry a tune. Besides, it's not about how good you are; it's about how good you feel when you do it."
"Well, it makes me feel bad when dogs howl and children cry."
"What about when it was just you and I? Did it feel good then?"
"That was different."
"I guess because?you didn't seem to mind."
"I like that you can't sing."
"That's the first time I've heard that," Maryl laughed. "How come?"
"It's easy to share things you're good at, but very hard to share the bad. I know I twisted your arm, but you sang for me and it made me feel closer to you. It had to be hard for you to do, but you did it anyway and I'll never forget that."
Maryl gave her a considering look. "What are you bad at?"
"Nothing obvious," Robin answered. "Let's see. I can't do that thing with my tongue where you roll it?" Maryl demonstrated. "That's it. And I can't whistle."
"Not at all?"
Robin shook her head and they stopped walking while she tried anyway. Maryl tried to explain it, but no matter how she moved her mouth, she just made herself light-headed.
"You're right," Maryl said as they gave up. "It does make me feel closer to you knowing that you can't do something so simple."
"Simple for you, maybe."
Maryl squeezed her hand. "Let's go eat lunch. I have plans for you."
Robin's nipples hardened to the point they felt brittle and she led the way back to camp.
Robin lay with her head in Maryl's lap watching the stars and listening to the crackle of the fire. She was using a twig to clean her teeth-having forgotten to bring her toothbrush-and Maryl was leaning back on one hand, stroking Robin's hair with the other. They were both dressed, at least temporarily, against the chill of the evening.
"What are you thinking about?" Robin asked into the silence.
"Just listening to the frogs and crickets." Maryl's voice was soft and dreamy. "Enjoying being here with you."
"You're the best time I've ever had," Robin ventured. Maryl smiled, but it seemed obligatory. Her eyes were sad and lonely. Robin knew in that moment how the future would be and her chest ached. She couldn't bear to let Maryl see her heart break, so she rolled to her side and faced the fire. With nothing left to lose, she said what she had been waiting to say all day. "I love you, Maryl."
"I love you, too."
Hope flared briefly. "But it doesn't matter, does it?"
Maryl was almost whispering. "It matters a great deal."
"Still," Robin persisted, "it's almost over, isn't it?" She waited a long agonizing moment for Maryl's answer.
"That's how it is with dreams, Robin. They're beautiful while they last, but they always end."
Robin fought the need to cry. She knew it wouldn't help. "Is there someone else?"
"No," Maryl said quickly. "I promise?it's nothing like that."
"Then why?" When she didn't get an immediate answer she began to hope again. "The most important thing is that we love each other. Everything else is geography and finances."
"Everything else is reality," Maryl said with tears in her voice. "We have lives and habits and needs that we're going back to. Hearts and bodies aren't enough to build a relationship on."
This didn't make any sense to Robin. "But it's the best place to start."
"It's more likely to be the beginning of the end."
"That's pretty cynical."
"Perhaps. But I'm not leaving Edgewater and you need your family."
"That's for me to decide."
"True," Maryl admitted. "But I won't ask you to leave them behind. They're more important to you than you may realize and they need you, too."
Robin was feeling a little desperate and angry. "You left your family."
"My family and yours are nothing alike. Our relationships to our families are completely different. Leaving my family was a matter of emotional survival. Your family completes you." Maryl sighed. "But it's not just family, Robin. Are you going to quit your job and start over as a cashier? That's not very realistic."
"Who's to say what kind of position I could find in Edgewater? It might be a step up, not a step down."
"What about friends?"
"I'll make new friends." Maryl's hand left her hair and Robin turned to see her face. She had her hand over her mouth and tears were rolling down her cheeks. Robin sat up and put one hand over Maryl's legs for balance as she looked into her face. "What is it really, Maryl? No more excuses. If you don't love me the way I love you, say so. I can understand that. But to just?dismiss the possibility of a future with me without a reason-I need to understand, Maryl. Don't do this to us without involving me."
Maryl closed her eyes and shook her head.
Robin looked around as if for help. The only thing she could think of was to explain why understanding was so important to her, so she took a deep, calming breath. "My last lover's name was Tammy. We were together for 12 years. I left her on our twelfth anniversary. The last year I was with her was a nightmare because she wouldn't talk to me. One day everything seemed fine and the next day she hated me. I don't know why, but I tried everything."
It made Robin feel hopeless all over again just remembering. "She wouldn't go to counseling with me, so I went alone. Of course that did absolutely nothing for her. If I made a special meal, she ate in front of the TV or went to bed without eating. She couldn't bear for me to touch her so I slept on the sofa. If I asked how her day was, she told me it was none of my business. I wasn't folding the clothes right. I wasn't washing the dishes properly. I was running the vacuum over the carpet nap incorrectly. I swear, I couldn't do even one thing to her satisfaction. If I paid the bills I was nagging. If I didn't pay the bills I was selfish. I bought the wrong kind of toilet paper and laundry soap and toothpaste. We had a huge fight once over tomato sauce. I bought her gifts and she either ignored them or pawned them. I would bring her flowers and as soon as I left the room, she would throw them away. And through it all, every single time I tried to talk to her and find out what was wrong, she told me I was imagining things and that there was nothing to talk about. I still don't know why she stopped loving me." Robin used the backs of her fingers to wipe away Maryl's tears. "If you don't at least try to make me understand, it would be the cruelest thing you could do to me. Please, baby. Talk to me."
Maryl leaned into her with a sob and a nod. Robin pulled her into her lap and wrapped the blanket about them both. "Take your time, lover. Take all the time you want. You have my undivided attention."
Maryl cried for a long while and Robin rocked her patiently. Maryl eventually quieted enough to talk, but her words were halting and pained.
"My last relationship lasted 31 weeks. That's the longest relationship I've ever had. I've only had two last longer than 4 months. They always leave me and they usually do something hateful to say goodbye."
Robin wanted to say something to make it all right, but Maryl wasn't finished.
"I can't remember how many times I've been cheated on. My checking account has been cleaned out twice and all of my furniture disappeared once. My car has been thrashed and all of the windows in my house have been broken. I've been slapped and pushed and called horrible names."
Maryl choked on her words, but continued on. "I came home from work a few months ago to find my girlfriend, in my bed, sandwiched happily between two men and she couldn't even remember their names. They didn't even bother to stop. She tried to get me to join in and called me a prude when I refused."
Robin felt sick.
"It's always something," Maryl cried. "I'm too sexually adventurous. I'm not adventurous enough. I'm too focused on material comfort. I don't have enough education. My politics are all wrong. I'm godless or I worship the wrong god. It's not fair that I only pay half the bills. I don't care enough. I care too much." Maryl's face twisted up in self-recrimination. "I don't know what I'm doing wrong!"
Robin couldn't fix what Maryl was saying in her head. It seemed so at odds with the woman she had come to know. It was flat impossible to believe that Maryl was at fault in any of it. The idea that she somehow deserved such treatment was ludicrous. Perhaps her choices in women were poor, but Robin couldn't believe that Maryl was unlovable: that she was doing something in her everyday life that drove women mad. Granted, she didn't know what Maryl was like at home, but even so?
"You're afraid I'll leave you, too," Robin said quietly. "That I'll hurt you and leave you alone."
Maryl nodded through fresh tears.
Robin kissed her forehead. "I'm not like them, babe. You'll see."
"No," Maryl cried. "I need?"
Robin waited for a moment, but Maryl didn't speak. "Tell me, Maryl. Whatever it is, tell me."
Maryl couldn't stop crying and she spoke through her sobs. "I need one good memory. I need to have one memory to cherish-one thing no one can take away from me. I need a memory I can hold in my heart when they cheat and steal and scream that they hate me. I need one person who loved me and didn't leave. I need to know that dreams are possible. Just one thing to make me feel hope."
"Hope for what?"
"Hope that someday I'll find someone."
Robin looked full into Maryl's face. "And if I'm her?" She watched as Maryl struggled for the control to speak.
"If something seems too good to be true, it is."
Robin was stunned into silence. All the pieces slid neatly into place and she could see for the first time how broken Maryl felt. She knew that Maryl was on retreat with a support group, but it never really occurred to her that Maryl had a reason for being in it. The epiphany brought no joy-only grief-and she let her tears fall unchecked. She knew that Maryl loved her. She knew that she was the best thing Maryl had ever felt and she knew she had to let her go. There was nothing she could say or do that would break through Maryl's fear in a single night without destroying any chance that one day they might be together.
Robin looked up at the stars with a watery gaze and searched for a spark of hope in her own heart. When she found it, she nurtured the uncertain flicker until she felt strong enough to be what Maryl needed.
Maryl's hands were knotted tightly against her chest and Robin gently took one. She eased her hand open and laid it over her heart. She looked into Maryl's tormented face. "Can you feel my heartbeat?" Maryl hesitated a moment and then nodded. "Listen to me very carefully." Robin poured all of her emotion into her voice in an effort to make her believe. "I love you. And I know that you love me just as much. Until it's time to go, that's all there is between us. Just love."
She ignored Maryl's sobs and began making love to her. Their bodies were desperately intent on wringing every last moment of intimacy and bliss from their time together and the only words they spoke were of love.
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