Chapter Seven
The Grande Tour


Miriam was definitely having a mood swing, or what her doctor would professionally label a manic episode, because she couldn't stop herself from finding things to do. She'd cleaned from the time she arrived home from Maddy's, and when that was done she'd looked through boxes full of paper scraps and old photos for no particular reason. Miriam was now determined that she could cultivate her garden even though it was well past three in the morning, and decided that she should be thankful to have the opportunity while the rain had paused no matter what the time might be. Miriam gleaned the twigs and rubble from her flower beds, and clipped away decaying buds unborn from lack of sunshine. Vidalia-Kitty had joined Miriam early, and then she and Tahloolah strategically placed themselves at opposite ends of the court as if squaring up for an impending fight. Miriam kept them both in sight, ready to break up any quarrel they might have, and kept her fingers crossed that she wouldn't have to. Miriam already had another job lined up when she was finished in the garden, thinking she might as well get her clothes ready for Wednesday's adventure with Esther, in case it happened to materialize. And while the iron was hot, she should ready her duds for next week's trip to Shreveport, as well. She'd have to decide first what she should wear, which Miriam speculated, might take at least an hour. Then with that task behind her, she thought surely she'd be ready for bed.

No such luck. At 7:45 a.m., she heard Esther's car pass by and watched the Mustang's taillights break at the top of the hill and turn toward town. Miriam shuffled her fuzzy house shoes to the garage immediately and hopped in her truck, under the pretense that she absolutely must drive out to the fast food strip for a breakfast biscuit and a tall glass of orange juice, she'd coincidentally pass by the coffee shop for a hopeful glimpse of Esther. After which, she rationalized, she'd surely be exhausted and need to go to sleep. She caught up with Esther, then eased back so as not to be detected, following her into town and watching her leave her car and unlock the coffee shop door. "Wow, you look nice," Miriam said to herself as she drifted past, "business suit and all." Miriam guessed that Maddy was right regarding the interviews, because Esther certainly looked professional for so early in the morning. Miriam continued on toward Sabine Springs and munched out on breakfast on her drive back to town. Naturally, she passed by the coffee shop once more, noticing that all the lights were on inside and several cars were parked outside, but no sign of Esther.

The rain set in again so she hit her wipers, and then floored the truck and sped away home. When she got there, she rationalized that she must've left the patio door open in her haste to follow Esther, but cautiously entered the house and pulled a butcher's knife from the block just to be safe. Sure enough, as she crept through her dimly lit house in search of danger, Miriam heard a rustling of papers toward the back bedrooms and eased slowly down the hallway. When she peered into the guest room expecting to find a prowler, she found Tahloolah and Vidalia playfully scuffling amid her memorabilia from her tirade the night before. "Well, don't you two look pretty?" First one stood and then the other, each arching their backs for attention. "Vidalia, you're a keeper. We'll have to get her booked for a long journey, won't we Tahloolah?"

Miriam replaced all her bits of paper and photographs neatly in her hatbox and petted the love starved kitties equally. "C'mon, you two. It's way past our bedtime." Miriam tried to relax but eventually she needed a double dosage of sleeping pills, which in due time calmed her down enough so that she could lay still. She turned her a/c down to fifty and curled up on the sofa beneath her grandmother's quilt to watch an old movie classic starring Ginger and Fred. Ultimately, she found a peaceful place in her mind where it was safe enough for her to go to sleep, and there she lay for the remainder of the day.

She was up bright and early on Wednesday morning. Miriam felt relaxed and rested both from her manic episode the day before and from the weekend in general. She was back to feeling more like her old self. While drinking her morning coffee, Miriam began a list that would guide her through the appropriate steps in a process to see Esther, and she made an accompanying list that included things to take for the picnic. Written on top of the first list were the words ‘call Esther,' since she definitely wanted to make sure that it would be an opportune time for her to visit the shop. Her worst fear so far was to show up with basket in hand to find Esther unavailable or otherwise occupied. Next on the list was ‘go shopping.' Usually she hated to shop, but if Esther agreed to the invitation, then shopping would be an absolute necessity, and with today's anticipation, she didn't think she'd mind it in the least. Decidedly, she would harvest a few goodies from her garden to adorn her basket and take the surplus to Mrs. Diamond when she picked up fresh croissants from the bakery. Miriam thought croissants would be a tasty item for the picnic, if she got to go. After she gathered the vegetables, Miriam noticed the time was now after two. She took a deep breath and dialed the phone.

"Some Like It Hot," a man's voice announced.

"Yes, may I speak with Esther?" Miriam felt okay so far and lit a cigarette casually.

"Ms. Watson's with a customer just now. Will you hold a moment?" Then the phone was laid down and Miriam could hear faint talking in the background. After the front door bell jingled, she picked up.

"Hello, this is Esther." She sounded very professional, Miriam thought.

"I hope so, Esther. This is Miriam, your neighbor." Surely she didn't know too many Miriams, yet she didn't want to take a chance on any confusion.

"Well, what a pleasant surprise." Her voice suddenly took on a softer demeanor. "Will you hold on? I want to switch phones."

Miriam was placed on hold and waited for what seemed like a lifetime, but what was in reality, only a few moments. Then Esther asked if she was still there. "Yes, I'm still here. How are you?"

"Busy." Esther said flatly, but recovered quickly "but not too busy to talk with you for a moment. What about yourself?"

"Oh, I'm fine. I've been busy, too." Miriam could feel herself faltering just a bit, and cleared her voice before proceeding. "Listen, I thought maybe if you weren't going to be busy later on, I might come up for that Grande Tour you suggested."

"Hey, you know what, I'd like that." Miriam imagined that at that moment, Esther was smiling. "If you could come later, I'll treat us to dinner. Say about 5:15, no how about 5:30? Is that okay?"

"Perfect." Miriam gave herself a high five. "I'll see you then."

"Great. Thanks for calling." Then Esther was gone.

Miriam did a damn lot of talking to calm herself down, she didn't want to be anxious or appear high strung toward Esther when they met, she truly wanted to be natural with Esther and she needed to feel natural calmness within herself to achieve that. Despite her focus and inner connection, she jumped and yelled ‘yahoo' during her shower and realized a broken leg wouldn't be cool, so she calmed herself quickly. After that, things went well. She carefully filled the basket with rewards, and left space enough for a bottle of wine, fresh croissants, and some cheese and meat from the deli. After she dressed, she thought she looked good and she knew she smelled good, and she'd brushed her teeth twice for good measure. Miriam was off and ready. Her errands would allow her just enough time to recover from only one mistake, but she was so well prepared she hadn't needed the time allowance after all. When she arrived downtown at ten after, she drove around the square and down by the Market so as not to appear too anxious. As smooth as glass, she parked in front of the vacant shop at 5:25 p.m. and slipped inside the door. From the back, a voice hailed. "Sorry, we're closed."

"Umm. Esther, it's Miriam. I'm a little early. Do you want me to come back?"

"Heaven's no. I'm sorry, I thought you were a late shopper. Come on in." Miriam still hadn't seen her, but her voice came from somewhere behind the main coffee shop.

"I've forgotten something in my car, I'll be right back." Silence came. "Okay?"

"Okay. Go ahead, then when you come back inside lock the door behind you."

Fine by me, Miriam thought, as she retrieved the basket from the car. She was full of energy and skipped the steps leading up to the sidewalk with ease. Back inside, the voice again called "sorry, we're closed." Esther certainly had that line down pat, she thought. "Oh, Miriam, is that you?"

"Yes, it's me." As she twisted the knob, she yelled "I've locked the door."

"Thank you. Have a seat and I'll be right out." Miriam did as she was told and listened intently as Esther hummed a sweet tune, still hidden somewhere beyond the heavy curtains that hung between the shop and the rest of the building. Finally, Esther peered through the partition. "Hi, come on back, I was changing. I'm sorry I kept you waiting." Miriam stood and reached for the picnic basket. "Hey! What's that you have there?"

"Oh, this is for you." Miriam handed Esther a bottle of wine wrapped in pretty paper, and then she held up the basket. "I hope you like picnics."

"I like them, yes." Esther smiled wide, then added "but I thought I would treat you tonight." When Miriam reached Esther's position, she got a hasty hug. "What a surprise," Esther seemed delighted.

Esther lead them back through a small passageway that opened up into what seemed like a library, complete with rolling ladders. There were lighted shelves of books along three walls and vintage tables and chairs placed in the center of the room. "Let me turn us on a light and I'll start the tour." She walked toward what looked like a cabinet in the back. "Hopefully, this part will be ready to open next weekend. What I actually did was expand on what I thought was already good thing."

Esther talked and talked of her idea to expand the coffee shop into a book store that would feature exotic coffees and pastries, plus offer gift items and books, and lend used books to the locals. "I guess it's the closest thing that Cool Lake has to a library. Here in the very back will be a soup and sandwich counter." She flipped a switch that highlighted an antique bar complete with brass railings and bar stools. "I'm really hopeful that it will be a huge smash with the college kids. Well, and the tourists, too." She located another switch that highlighted stained glass on the walls and ceiling. "They're not really windows, of course, but with the lights turned on them they seem real, don't they?"

"Yes, they're very pretty." Miriam could now see the picture more clearly, as brass fans with hanging globes began to stir above the tables.

"Then when we take out the wall from the shop, all the natural light will come in from the street." She had made the circle and was headed back toward where Miriam was standing. "Plus, we're taking out this old alley door," Esther tapped it as she walked by, "and putting in double wide glass doors for easy access to the patio and the alleyway."

"Patio?" Miriam wondered how in the world she would squeeze a patio between the buildings.

"Yep. You go out the side and down a few steps and there's a patio with umbrella-covered tables for those who like their brew alfresco. It's narrow like a little New Orleans courtyard; the landscaper came up with the idea and I thought it was very smart. You wanna see it?" Then before Miriam could answer, Esther withdrew. "Naw, it's still raining, let's wait."

They stood a moment in silence allowing Miriam the chance to drink it all in. "I like it Esther. How imaginative." Then after a moment more, Miriam added "very charming."

"Perfect. That's just the reaction I was looking for." She continued to make her way toward Miriam from the back, and when Miriam glanced toward her, Esther uttered "charming." Miriam was caught by surprise when her eyes met Esther's. "You want to grab that hamper and we'll head upstairs?"

Since Miriam did, she took a few steps back to find its resting-place and secured the handles. "I'm ready when you are." Her words were followed by silence. Miriam thought she might have overplayed her hand with the undertone of her last comment. She hoped that she wouldn't make Esther leery of her, if by chance she had heard anything of Miriam's sexual orientation. "Beautiful stairway. Is it original?"

"Yes. I'm sorry for the climb, but you'll think it's well worth it when you see the space. As you can tell, the space up here covers about two-thirds of the building." Esther had nearly reached the top and turned back to Miriam. "We've hardly done a thing up here, but I finally found a contractor that will work after five. So, when he starts the work the noise won't interfere with regular business." Esther reached the top step and held her hand out to Miriam.

Miriam took her extended hand and was overwhelmed by the vastness of the room. "It's huge. You don't notice the size from downstairs, but...wow, this is really big." Esther held her hand a second longer and then went twirling about the loft as Miriam spoke. "What will you do with all this space?"

"I don't have a clue, other than I want the original bricks exposed. I figure the rest will just come to me while I'm sleeping. Or come by a suggestion from someone like you, so if you get any ideas, let me know." Esther made her way to the front windows where the lone piece of furniture in the entire room sat. A very comfortable looking sofa covered with afghans and quilts. Esther turned on a Tiffany-style standing lamp, and patted the sofa "come, sit over here. There's a great view of downtown from this spot. I think after these windows are restored I'll want to install a window box so I can sit up front here and watch the people go by." Esther was pointing here and there, and speaking with excitement in her voice. "Plus, it looks like Christmas each night when all the twinkle lights come on."

Miriam felt small in the vastness of the room, but the invitation to sit with Esther was larger than life. "Twinkle lights, eh? What twinkle lights."

"Oh, me and Uncle M took his remaining surplus of last year's Christmas lights from the five and dime and garnished all the trees around the square. You'll see ‘em just about dark. I connected them to a timer here at my place. The city boys helped us rig it, but don't tell."

"You are something else. You have a lot of energy, I like that." Miriam leaned toward the basket, "are you hungry?"

"Yes. I'm famished. After you called today, I didn't nibble on another bite." Esther stood like she had a spring up her ass. "Hey, I've got some music downstairs, I'll be right back," she said and off she went.

Miriam began to unload the basket, first by unfolding a flowered cotton tablecloth across the floor, then she crawled down putting the sofa to her back and withdrew a small vase of violets and lit a vanilla bean scented candle that she picked up from the floral shop. She opened the wine from the basket and placed two glasses beside it. As she spread the feast, Esther returned upstairs. "Hey!" She called "you still up here?"

"Still here. I'm just setting the table." Miriam heard her tinkering with something from somewhere behind the sofa, and then soft music began to play.

"I hope you like serenade music and stuff from the Big Band era, simply my favourites."

"Yes, as a matter of fact I like them very much." Miriam was impressed. "Especially Glenn Miller and his Orchestra." Finally, there she was and Miriam offered her a hand down.

"Ooh. This looks scrumptious." Esther smelled the fresh violets and immediately began to nibble. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were trying to romance me, Miriam."

Taking time to think, Miriam poured the wine. "And with your music selection, I'd say that if I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to romance me, Esther." And they each toasted their glasses toward one another and began their meal.

They each filled the air with talk, first one and then the next. Esther spoke again of the shop and Miriam spoke about the picnic rather than dining out. Soon they were sharing personal confidences about one another as if they were old friends, and also what they'd heard about each other from people like Maddy and what they knew for themselves. It was very lighthearted and Miriam was enjoying herself to the fullest. As if planned, just as Miriam poured the last drinks from the first bottle of the intoxicating beverage, Esther's twinkle lights came on. "Miriam! Look! There they are." Esther sat up on her knees to peer out the window.

Miriam joined her enthusiasm. "It looks like a wonderland." As Miriam's hand came to rest on the window ledge, it accidentally touched Esther's hand ever so slightly.

When Miriam moved her hand away, Esther stared out the window and asked "Miriam? Are you afraid of me?"

"Afraid of you? How could I be? I mean, why should I be afraid of you?" Miriam's questions were met with silence. "Esther, is there any reason that I should be afraid of you?" She sat back down on the floor. Miriam knew that now the party was over, Esther had no doubt heard something repelling about her being a Lesbian. "The question is, are you afraid of me?"

Esther continued to look out beyond the window for quite a while before she spoke. "I know that you're a Lesbian, Miriam." It seemed to Miriam as if she were weighing her words carefully. "And you know I'm not." Miriam remained silent. "I don't know what to do about you."

"Do about me? What do you mean do about me?" Miriam was now a tad bit on the defensive. "Just because I'm a Lesbian doesn't mean there's something that you have to do about me." Miriam didn't know what to do or say next, so she remained still and quiet. For a good long time they both remained still, as if frozen in time. Miriam decided that it was time for her to go, so she began gathering the remains of their picnic and straightening up. "I didn't mean to cause you any problems, Esther. I'm going to go and get out of your hair."

Esther turned quickly and held Miriam's arm. "Wait, you don't understand. I want you in my hair." She lifted Miriam's hand slowly to her lips, and then pressed Miriam's fingers gently to her curls. "I want you in my hair, Miriam."

In that perfect moment, Miriam leaned in and kissed Esther gently and passionately, running her fingers slowly through Esther's beautiful hair as she'd wanted to do from the start. Miriam's kiss was returned slowly, yet Esther explored Miriam's open mouth with her tongue. Miriam slid her hand slowly down to the small of Esther's back and lingered there, drawing her closer to the fire. As if something had gone terribly wrong, Miriam could feel Esther's body tremble and pull away. "No, we need to stop, Miriam. I'm in way over my head."

"We're stopped." Miriam turned loose and held her hands up. "That's all you have to say." Miriam was regaining composure and they both returned to their seating positions as the air between them grew very thick and tense.

Esther handed Miriam her gift bottle of wine still wrapped in pretty paper, and asked her to open it. As Miriam started the job, Esther whispered "no offense, but I could use a drink."

Miriam responded quietly. "To tell you the truth, I could use one myself." This was followed by silence. When the glasses were filled, they gulped at their nectar. Then Esther handed her glass to Miriam to be refilled again. "I didn't mean for that to upset you, Esther, I'm sorry."

"It bothered me, but in a good way." Esther took another drink of courage. "I wanted you to kiss me Saturday night," Miriam looked at her for the first time since the kiss, "but you wouldn't kiss me." Again, Esther weighed her words carefully. "I felt crushed when you said something about taking advantage of me and flatly refused." More silence. "I find that I don't know what to do with my feelings for you... this has never happened before. I don't even know what to feel or why I'm feeling this way...or how to act about a woman. But then, when you rejected me after the fish fry...well, let's just say I've been searching my soul to figure all of this out." Esther fell silent and sipped her wine.

"Now I know I was out of my head." Miriam chuckled slightly. "Maddy told me we even danced together." It was Miriam's turn to weigh her words carefully. "Esther, if I'd held you more soberly we would have kissed then. You could've returned my kiss or slapped my face at that point, I suppose." Miriam tried again, "I know this seems peculiar to you, but if I'd been in my right mind I would've wanted to kiss you, ‘cause I've found you so intensely attractive from the moment I saw you." Miriam shook her head against her hand. "I know I shouldn't be thinking...thoughts of you have been driving me crazy." Miriam scrutinized herself, adding "short effing trip."

A long silence followed. They both sat quietly and listened to soft music, refilling their glasses until the bottle was almost empty. "Miriam, can I ask you a question?"

Esther's speech was slightly slurred, but Miriam didn't notice. "Anything. My life's an open book," was Miriam's tender reply.

"What do I do now?" Esther wasn't sure of her words, "I mean, where do we go from here?"

"For me the answer is simple. I'll go where you take us. I've been in this business for a long time, Esther, and obviously you haven't. That's okay, don't get me wrong." Miriam didn't want to scare Esther away, but she didn't want her to commit an act that she might be sorry for later. "See, for me, I have to guard my heart as best that I can. Because you might be serious about loving a woman, and that's very okay, or you might be curious, which is okay, too, but it's far more risky for me."

"Miriam, you're not making much sense." Esther grinned from ear to ear. "Try again."

"Okay, I'm sorry. I'm getting there, be patient." Miriam turned to face Esther and began again. "It all comes down to you, Esther." Esther returned her stare. "You are the one to decide if you want to go further or not. I would like for us to be friends either way. As a matter of fact, I think we would make dear friends, if nothing more. But if you make your decision to proceed...hmm... romantically, let's say, then we begin from that moment."

"And if your it's-all-up-to-me theory would've happened after the fish fry?" Esther asked
lightheartedly but looked Miriam square in the eye for a sincere answer.

After a long pause, Miriam wrinkled her brow, saying "well, then." Half answering Esther's question with a question, she asked comically "we would've figured it all out the next morning?" They both laughed with one another and touched hands briefly like old friends. "I like you, Esther. That's the truth. You make the best choice for yourself no matter what comes, and I will do the same." Miriam was as honest as she could be, regardless of her own feelings. "I have an idea that you already know where you want this to go. What's left for you to do is find courage enough to fill me in. I'll be watching and waiting for your signal either way."

"Since it's all up to me tonight, would you sit on the sofa with me?" Esther was beginning to stand.

"Sure, seems like a simple request." Miriam stood and smoothed herself.

"Here." Esther pointed to the East end of the sofa. Miriam sat down, wondering what was next. "Sit here so we can watch the lights. Okay, now put your right leg up here and stretch it out." Miriam turned slightly and lifted her foot from the floor to the sofa, as Esther directed her movements. Then Esther placed herself on the sofa between her legs. "I'd like very much for you to hold me, if that's okay with you." She eased her back against Miriam's chest and put her feet up alongside Miriam's outstretched leg. "Aren't the lights beautiful?" Esther asked, as she wrapped Miriam's arms around her and surveyed the animation through her windows.

"Beautiful, Esther." Miriam replied, and after a time she couldn't help but hold her comfortably close. "Beautiful," she repeated quietly, not mindful of the lights at all.

Chapter Six
Chapter Eight

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