Stowe Away

By Blythe Rippon

blythe.rippon@gmail.com


 

May 7, 2008

Samantha struggled with the garbage can and recycling bin, muttering to herself as she made her way down the driveway with the two containers that it might have been worth making two trips. But she hadn't wanted to miss the garbage guys. Just as she reached the curb, the big green truck rounded the bend of the road in front of the house and slowed to a stop.

“Ms. Latham, glad to see ya.” The garbage man nodded his head at Sam and grunted as he hefted the refuse into the back of the truck. Sam smiled and politely wished him a nice day. She turned and made it halfway up the long drive before a young voice called to her. “Mornin', Ms. Latham! Here's yer paper!” A toe-headed boy tossed the Stowe Reporter toward her and, waving, biked off following behind the garbage truck.

“For crying out loud, it's like living in Mayberry,” she thought, rolling her eyes. She bent to pick up the paper, and, straightening, gazed at the house. It was a two-story cabin with wood siding. The three-bedroom home was situated on a hill such that one walked into the front of the house on the second floor and exited the back of the house from the first floor. A red brick chimney broke the angles of the roof, which were covered in wooden shingles a shade darker than the siding. Trees dotted the front yard, and were more populous behind the house on land stretching back three acres. It was quaint, and quaint was the last thing Sam wanted.

She pushed open the door, kicked off her shoes, and turned toward her mother. Eva was sleeping peacefully in her chair. Sam studied her for a brief moment before heading into the kitchen, pouring herself a glass of orange juice and plopping heavily onto a wooden chair. She gazed absently at a countertop filled with pill bottles and mentally reviewed her tasks for the day. The refrigerator kicked on, the low hum filling the silence. Sunshine flickered across the table through the skylight, interrupted by the quivering of tree branches in the wind. A couple of birds chirped happily outside the kitchen window, their sweet song seeming to mock Sam's misery. She swallowed her juice and opened the paper, grateful for the loud rustle it made. Obama had won the North Carolina primary the day before but was edged out by Clinton in Indiana. A lengthy article detailed the talents of the high school baseball team. The board of Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington was holding a fundraiser for a new wing dedicated to palliative care. Sighing heavily, Sam shook her head at that one; she would be giving them large sums of money soon enough.

As she closed the paper, the pages not quite returning to their original tight creases, the cat brushed against her shin, purring softly. “You want food, Aphrodite?” Sam asked, reaching down to stroke the white Persian underneath her chin before mentally chastising herself. Of course the cat wanted food. Aphrodite, in fact, knew exactly what she wanted and exactly how to get it. Sam, on the other hand, knew exactly what she wanted and had no way of getting it. Exactly whom she wanted, and no way of getting her. She rubbed her face and tried not to think of how far off track she'd gotten. “Damn you, Natalie,” she cursed under her breath. She almost laughed when she remembered it was Natalie who had taught her to cuss in the first place.

August 2003

Their first encounter was at a Residential College meeting for freshmen. One of the many things Natalie had decided she would get out of college would be a sense of style. She hadn't decided yet what that style would be, but she planned on trying a bunch out until she landed on one. Going for cowboy chic tonight, she donned ripped jeans, scuffed cowboy boots, a belt with a horseshoe buckle, a tight spaghetti-strapped black tank, and a ton of silver and turquoise jewelry. Glancing around the room where her new classmates were gathered, she noted that most of the students that lived in her dorm dressed preppy, bordering on outdoorsy. Her gaze fell on a gangly brunette sitting by herself just outside the circle of chairs, dark locks obscuring her face as her pen danced across a notebook. Despite the late-August humidity, the shy girl wore baggy jeans, boots, and two layers of oversized long-sleeved tees. Although the clothes swallowed her body, Natalie was struck by the gleam in her eyes as the brunette glanced up and met her gaze. The strangers smiled at each other briefly, before a dashing man in khakis and a polo shirt stood and called for everyone's attention. Natalie quickly dropped into an open seat, folded her hands in her lap, and tried not to look as anxious as she felt.

“Welcome to Yale, everyone. I'm Dustin Davis, a senior here in Yale's best residential college, Trumball. I'm also a Freshman Advisor. I've met most of you individually, as you were moving in, but I wanted to say in a more formal setting that I'm always here for you if you have questions, or need someone to talk to. I'm an artist, and I'm pretty much always painting or sculpting something. So feel free to stop by my room any time day or night. I'm looking forward to getting to know you all better. One of the best things about college, I think, is meeting new people and having engaging conversations in the classroom, or in the laundry room. You're all here because you're smart and interesting. So with that in mind, how about we go around the room, and you each can say a little bit about yourself.” Dustin turned to Claire, Natalie's roommate, who smiled.


“What would you like to know?” Claire asked, throwing a slight, teasing smile at him.

“Let's start with your name. How about where you're from, what you think you might major in, and what some of your interests are. It doesn't need to be a formula – just help us get to know you.”

“I'm Claire Wu. I'm from Dallas. I think I want to major in history and get a certificate in feminist studies. I sing, and I was thinking about auditioning for an a cappella group.”

With that, everyone's attention shifted to clockwise to Natalie. Don't be nervous, she reminded herself. People like confidence. “I'm Natalie Romano. I'm from San Francisco, and I want to major in Psychology.” She turned to Claire. “I didn't know you sing – I do too, so we should talk.” She paused a minute, then asked Dustin, “that piano over there. Can we play it?” She indicated a grand piano in the corner of the common room.

“Sure, help yourself. Just not too late at night, okay?” Dustin smiled at her.

Introductions continued, with Sam's roommate Tracy bragging that her dad had an Academy Award, a cute guy named Carlos offering to teach anyone who was interested how to swing dance, and a gangly fellow named Angelo confessing his love for science fiction. Spencer, a cross-country runner, shared the requisite personal details and then began to excuse himself, saying, “since I'm doing 10 miles at 6am, I guess I'd better hop to. Or, well. Gosh, how would you say that without ending it in a preposition? Um …”

“The sentence structure you are seeking would be ‘hop to I had better,' which, if you're interested in scansion, falls under trochaic trimeter. Throughout the past two hundred years, however, postpositional placement in English has gone out of vogue, such that moving the preposition dangling at the end of this particular sentence would produce incorrect – and frankly, awkward – phrasing by current standards.  Besides, consensus from contemporary linguists dictates that placing prepositions at the end of sentences is perfectly legitimate. Still, a precocious grammarian might try simply to rephrase the problematic clause, such that, in this case, ‘to' is not the last word. You could just say ‘I had better get going.'”

The room stared at the dark-haired woman with the notebook on her lap.

“I'm Sam. I'm from a lovely hamlet called Stowe in scenic Vermont. I write poetry, especially sonnets. I intend to double major in biology and chemical engineering.”

Most of the new neighbors had no idea what to make of Sam. Natalie instantly liked her.

The rest of the meeting passed uneventfully, and while Natalie chatted with Claire about the various personalities of different a cappella groups, Sam quietly slipped out the door.

**

Sam cringed slightly as she descended the stairs, reminding herself that next time she ought to gently close her dorm room door, rather than allowing its automatic spring to slam it shut. Although it was past dinnertime, her roommate Tracy was still sleeping off a hangover from the previous evening's escapades before she rallied herself to head out to a party and repeat the whole affair. While Sam had no experience with the recovery process, she appreciated that the loud noise would exacerbate Tracy's headache. She still wasn't sure why the roommate gods would pair her with Tracy, a party girl from LA who shopped for clothes like it was her major. The semester was barely three weeks old, yet already a number of freshman, including the woman who shared a bunk with Sam, had discovered binge drinking, wearing pajamas to class in order to sleep through lecture more comfortably, and pot. Tracy was nice enough, but the two freshmen had nothing in common except mutual affection for Bruce Springsteen's music. Shaking her head a little, Sam made her way to the courtyard, lugging her most prized possession.

A few minutes later, Natalie and Claire emerged from their room a few doors down, headed to a cappella rehearsal. The two friends moved through the hallway, discussing the songs they expected to sing later, and their upcoming essays for European history. Exiting the dorm into the still-humid night air, Natalie noticed Sam in the courtyard, peering at the sky through an impressively large telescope. Loudly enough for the stargazer to hear, Natalie asked Claire, “so have you met Sam? I think she's really funny.” The singers continued past the shy, lanky woman, but Natalie found herself looking over her shoulder twenty paces later to find startled green eyes peering back at her. The soft light in the courtyard flickered across Sam's blushing cheeks, and as Natalie turned back around, she threw Sam a wink.

**

There was nothing particularly special about her – except to Sam, everything about her was special. Sam drowned in Natalie's easy smile, her genuine laughter, and the flash in her green eyes when they lighted on Sam's. Natalie matched Sam's 5'7” frame, and both women were lithe, bordering on skinny. But Natalie lived in her body with such ease and grace. Where Sam was pale, Natalie's skin had a warmer hue and despite her Northern California origins, she always appeared as though she'd just come in from the beach. Her layered, dirty blond hair begged to be tousled. Sam was smitten, and she'd never even had occasion to speak with Natalie.

That opportunity came two weeks later. Natalie and Claire invited all the freshmen in their Residential College to their room to watch Casablanca on the flatscreen TV Claire's rich dad had insisted dominate the girls' common room. Unpracticed in the art of hosting a party, the ladies of room 125 had failed to procure beverages for their guests. When Sam offered to bring back the contents of her mini-fridge, Natalie flashed a crooked smile at her and pointed out that Sam would need help carrying back so many cans of soda. Although they were headed from Natalie's room to Sam's, Natalie took the lead, walking through narrow hallways in front of her new acquaintance. The style-challenged scientist was amused to see Natalie sporting the J Crew look in pressed chinos, boat shoes, and a lightweight salmon sweater. Small talk gave way when Sam inquired, abruptly, “so, you're gay, right?”

Sam's face flushed and her thoughts rushed: “What the heck, Sam? Are you insane? You can't just go around asking people if they're gay! What do you expect her to say? Either way you'll be disappointed. If she's not, you have no chance. If she is, that doesn't mean she would be interested in you. She doesn't even know you, and now you've probably offended her. Wow she's got broad shoulders. She probably swims. For crying out loud, maybe you could request a rooming transfer to someplace across campus. That way you'll never have to see her again. Mmmm, she's got a cute butt. Whoa, stop. You blithering idiot, get it together. Maybe you can transfer schools –”

“No. No, I'm not,” came the quiet reply.

“Oh.”

Silence. Sam tried to ascertain what tripped her gaydar, wondering if it might be the slight swagger to Natalie's walk, the interested expression on her face whenever pretty women walked by, or the raw sexuality she seethed which, when contrasted with her gentle demeanor, make-up, and feminine haircut, struck Sam as just a tad masculine.

Sam tried again. “Has anyone ever told you that you look and sound a little like Jodi Foster?”

Natalie snickered, recognizing the question as simply another version of the previous inquiry.

“No. She has blue eyes, doesn't she?” Natalie turned and grinned at Sam. “Mine are green. Like yours. Also, she's prettier than me.” Green eyes twinkled a bit as the gorgeous blond grinned mischievously at her companion. They rounded the corner and found themselves in front of Sam's door.

Sam shook her head, trying to shake the feeling she was being flirted with. “That's not true,” she mumbled, fumbling with her keys.

Natalie laughed, a warm sound that tickled Sam's insides. “So what've you got in your fridge? I don't drink soda.”

“Of course you don't, California,” Sam smirked at her, regaining a bit of her composure. “I'll round up the usual suspects,” she commented as she began handing bottles of Pellegrino and Izze to Natalie.

They each claimed a sparkling juice and, grinning at each other, clinked their bottles together. “For old time's sake,” Natalie quoted back, and they exited arm in arm as if it had always been.

May 2008

Eva stared at the flashcard, her brow furrowed in concentration. They had been at this for what they both felt had been an interminable amount of time, although Sam knew it had only been forty-five minutes. Even Aphrodite was yawning, and all she'd done all day was clean her tail and purr.

“C'mon, Mom, just one more,” Sam encouraged her. When she finally stuttered “microwave” they both breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

Eva's recall was getting steadily better, but they both knew she had a long way to go. She was regularly exhausted by the brief mental exercises, and her day was interrupted by lengthy naps from which she awoke feeling disorientated and irritable.

Sam stood up from the couch, her knee cracking. She flopped her head to her left shoulder and heard a few additional pops. Before she lost her patient's focus, she knelt down in front of the wheelchair. “Mom, you're doing really, really well. I know it's hard, but you're getting better. It takes a lot of work, but it's worth it.”

“It's worth it,” the slight woman in the wheelchair parroted back. Her daughter wished fervently that Eva meant what she said, but nothing in her power could confirm that notion. She kissed her mother's cold, soft cheek before rolling her into her bedroom, a space formerly bright and airy and now cave-like in its dark stillness. Helping Eva stand and rotate, Samantha eased her mother into the bed and pulled the chair away.

Once she got her mother settled, Sam pushed back the lower part of the covers and took a weak, pale leg into her lap. Pliant skin yielded to firm, strong fingers as Sam massaged atrophying muscles, encouraging blood flow. Her mother was sound asleep before Sam switched legs.

Loneliness had been Sam's constant companion since she received the phone call from the hospital. If she were honest with herself, her coupledom with solitude predated that horrible day by a few years. During all that time, Sam had never talked aloud just to hear the sound, but the ache that weighed on her heart left her helpless and she succumbed to the comforting timbre of her own voice.

“Looks like a nice day out. Maybe when you wake up we can go for a walk outside. And tomorrow we're going to start on a new set of flashcards. I have big plans for you, Mom. Dreams. I have dreams for you. I bet you had dreams for me once. It doesn't matter. We have each other. I'm here for you, and I won't leave you. Enough other people have already done that. So you're stuck with me. You're stuck with a caregiver who cooks poorly and possesses abominable housecleaning skills. You're stuck with a daughter who's stuck talking to herself.”

Shaking her head at herself, Sam returned the quilt to its proper position over Eva's legs and retreated to the rest of the house and away from the atmosphere of loss that permeated her mother's bedroom.

She closed the door quietly and leaned against it. Her bedroom door stood open on the opposite end of the hallway, revealing sage-colored carpet and pale green walls. Her childhood bed, covered by the last quilt Eva had made, peaked around the corner. To the right of the door, at eye level, hung a framed photograph of Sam and Eva raking leaves together. Their earth-tone canvas jackets matched, but Sam's long dark locks, hanging straight to her mid-back, contrasted sharply with Eva's bright red curly hair, which fluttered wildly around her face. Both women were laughing, and on closer inspection an attentive viewer would note that bits of leaves and twigs clung to both dark and red hair and topped mother and daughter's shoulders. Sam was probably fifteen in the photo – the age most children maintain a healthy amount of resentment toward their parents, or at least a modicum of embarrassment regarding them. Sam, however, wasn't most children, and she always enjoyed days spent in the yard with her mom and dad. If Eva was in the yard, or the garage they had converted into an artist studio, it was a good day, a day when the middle-aged redhead conquered her demons and found happiness, a day when the three of them genuinely enjoyed one another's company.

Sam's trip down memory lane was interrupted by the ring of the phone. Briefly Sam felt a wave of irritation surge through her, before she remembered that at this point in her life even a call from yet another pollster inquiring about her opinions on the upcoming general election would be welcome company.

“Hello?”

“Samantha, this is Dolores. Just checking in. How are you two holding up?”

Sam settled in for what she presumed would be a long conversation with her elderly neighbor. She snorted softly when she wondered why the woman didn't just walk next door and talk to her in person.

October 2003

“Hey there, Sporty Spice. Nice pigskin.”

Natalie shaded her eyes with her left hand and squinted up as Sam approached. Her head was pillowed on a football.

“Mind if I join you?” Sam inquired.

“Of course not.” Natalie said with a crooked smile. “I was actually hoping if I laid out here long enough, some shy biology major would happen by and I'd persuade her to play catch with me.” Natalie had even dressed for the occasion, sporting a 49ers hat and a Giants baseball tee.

Sam grimaced. “You won't be able to play the piano every night if you jam your fingers.” She dropped heavily to the ground and the two women's eyes closed as they enjoyed the cool breeze drifting across their faces. Fall was in full effect, and bright sunlight had little power to do more than warm their skin. They relaxed in silence for a bit, smelling the sweet decay of fallen leaves rustling against each other, the sound of feet crunching on brown grass filling their ears as students passed nearby.

When Natalie spoke again, Sam had almost forgotten what they had been talking about. “Sorry, does it bother you that I play so late?”

Sam was grateful Natalie's eyes were closed. She could feel the heat on her face as she realized she'd just given herself away. For the past six weeks, every Monday through Thursday evening at 11:30pm Sam would sneak into the back of the Trumball College common room and listen while Natalie poured her heart out into the eight foot Bosendorfer. The late Romantic and Impressionism periods seemed to be her favorite, and she alternated between Chopin, Ravel, Debussy and Prokofiev. One night, after a particularly dynamic performance of a Rachmaninoff sonata, Sam had watched from the shadows while Natalie wiped tears from her eyes. It was clear whatever walls the blond San Franciscan kept firmly in place during classes, parties, and her normal life, would disappear whenever she was alone with a piano. Sam knew Natalie treasured those solitary moments, and was always careful to slip away before the musician turned away from her instrument.

“Actually.” Sam cleared her throat. “I was wondering … if you'd teach me.”

Natalie bolted upright. “Really?” She squealed. “I'd love to! What kind of music do you want to learn – classical or pop? Or jazz. Jazz is hard. But there's a lot of freedom in jazz. Of course, pop is hard to because you'll want to sing while you play, and that's more challenging than patting your head and rubbing your tummy.”

“Hey, you're rambling. Let's just start with Twinkle Twinkle and go from there.” Sam beamed. “This is great. Thanks! You are so cool.”

“Well, I don't know about that. But I am a pretty good piano teacher,” she admitted, a little shyly.

Accustomed to hearing her confident friend tout her skills, Sam giggled. “Oh yeah? How do you even know?”

“Oh. I uh. Well, I give lessons.”

“You do?” Sam was surprised. She'd never seen anyone else in the common room with Natalie.

“Yeah. On Sundays I go to this homeless shelter called the Columbus House in downtown New Haven and I give lessons to the kids there. When I first went there, the week classes started here, they didn't have a piano or anything, so I bought them a keyboard.”

Sam was a little stunned. Natalie rolled onto her side and propped her head up on her hand, gazing at her speechless friend.

“When I decided to go to Yale for college, I vowed that I wouldn't get wrapped up in the Ivy League culture and snobbery and all that,” she explained. “It's too easy to forget that not everyone comes from privilege. That there are different ways to be smart. That it's important to give back.” Natalie paused and studied Sam for a moment. “You can come sometime, if you want.”

“Um,” Sam rubbed the back of her neck. She'd never knowingly met a homeless person. “Yeah, sure. I'd like that.”

“It'll be fun. Hey, speaking of fun …”

Sam groaned.

“Brent's throwing a party this weekend. You should come.” Natalie had gone back and forth in her mind all week, trying to decide whether or not to invite Sam. She recognized that her shy friend harbored a crush and felt bad exposing her to how physical Natalie and Brent often were with each other at parties. But she also knew her workaholic neighbor needed to get out and enjoy college more. In that moment, the invitation escaped her lips without much thought. She wondered how much responsibility she bore toward protecting her friend, and why she should feel guilty about wanting to spend time with a woman whose company she thoroughly enjoyed. Besides, she doubted Sam would accept the invitation.

“Thanks, but I have plans,” Sam replied softly.

“Spending the weekend in the lab again? You know, college isn't just about book learnin'.” She drawled out the last few words, hoping to soften her criticism of Sam's avoidance of anything resembling a party.

“Yeah, I'm getting that. I just like what I do,” the brunette admitted.

“Ugh, I envy you. I don't think psych is for me. I was thinking architecture for a while, but I don't own enough black clothes to fit in. I've finally decided against music. Not sure what that leaves me with.” Natalie poked Sam in the ribs and giggled, correcting herself: “Not sure with what that leaves me.”

“I did tell you that modern grammarians find it acceptable to end sentences with a preposition. So does my Aunt Marian, who happens to be a librarian.”

At that, Natalie guffawed. “You're kidding, right? Marian's a librarian?! That's so obvious!”

“Isn't your Uncle Art an artist?” Sam challenged.

“Yeah, but I think he was trying to do it ironically. I can't imagine librarians doing things ironically.”

“I assure you, librarians have an impressive capacity for all literary devices,” Sam responded, causing Natalie to giggle again. “Anyway, I hope you have fun at the party.” Sam stood and extended her hand to help Natalie rise.

“You wanna play some catch before you go back to building Frankenstein, or whatever it is that you do in your lab coat?” Natalie batted her eyes and pouted prettily.

In that moment Sam realized that no power on earth could make her say no when Natalie pouted.

November 2003

Chance encounters soon led to more intentional interactions, as the two women discovered they enjoyed one another's wit and sincerity. They soon knew all about each other's families, their Protestant (Natalie) and Catholic (Samantha) upbringings, and their sometimes obsessive love of literature.

By the time Thanksgiving had rolled around, and the two freshmen had departed for their respective family extravaganzas, they were close enough to warrant trading emails, and even a couple of phone calls.

Hyper self-aware, Sam knew from a young age that she was destined to be a scientist. But despite not majoring in the humanities, she was determined to maintain her passionate love of language, and her emails to the intriguing woman who captured her heart were both easily affectionate and carefully constructed literary texts, rich with description of family interaction and scenery, and thoughtful with questions about Natalie's holiday experience.

Sam wondered at the wisdom of pursuing a relationship of any kind with the blond haired, green-eyed musician whose smile made her weak. Natalie professed to be straight, and whether or not Sam believed this assertion, Sam reminded herself that where her friend was confident and fashionable, she was uncertain and aloof. Still, she enjoyed Natalie's company above all other's and felt powerless over her feelings of attachment to the blond Californian whose look changed daily. Rather than fight it, she emailed Natalie:

 

Hey Chameleon,

 

Getting lost in the Northeast is always fun. My father, who, inexplicably, has a "Wild Mushrooms" calendar posted by his computer (this month is the Hen of the Woods) has just left to take Mom on a nature walk. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has just wrapped up, and the bird for tonight's dinner has been removed from its toasty sauna and is now chilling on top of the stove. I'm chilling on the sofa. The turkey and I are having a staring contest. I think I have the distinct advantage, given my four eyes and the bird's complete lack of eyes, but you never know. Birds can be sneaky. In other news, I might have followed my father around the kitchen all morning in a vain endeavor to snag snacks from his ample supply, only to have him repeatedly instruct me to whistle so that the sound would confirm for him I had neither sticky fingers nor a mouth full of food. That concludes my account on the morning's activities. I'll continue my report later tonight, provided we all survive the gastronomic catastrophe that is overeating. Happy Thanksgiving, Natalie.

 

Best,

Sam

Natalie, meanwhile, recognized from their first one-on-one conversation that Sam was not only gay, but interested. While her rational, compassionate side reminded her briefly that perhaps it was in neither woman's interest that they deepen their friendship, she found herself inexorably drawn to the brunette with the beautiful eyes who hid behind oversized clothing but whose confidence, if one looked closely enough, eclipsed her own. When the moon was high and her family were hours into sleep after turkey and Trivial Pursuit and dishes, she found herself hitting “reply” in her parents' office.

Dearest Sam,

I'm glad you wrote. Your family sounds funny and sweet. I hope I get to meet them someday.

I used to love our family trek after Thanksgiving dinner from our house in the Presidio to the Land's End beach, but I've grown more acutely aware of my family's failings during this little voyage. My aunt complains the whole walk about her hip, but she refuses to see a doctor about it and a journey that used to take us twenty minutes now takes forty. My two older cousins were stoned, and they spent the entire time giggling at nothing. And my uncle was belligerent and ranting about politics after too much Jack Daniels. It's funny, as we get older, how we realize the faults in the adults around us. I never noticed that kind of thing growing up. My younger brother Michael remains oblivious, which I suspect is for the best. His idealized visions of our family will probably collapse when he leaves for college in three years, like mine did. I think leaving the nest changes your perspective.

How are your parents getting along? I remember you saying there had been a lot of tension there recently. Is there snow in Stowe? Hey, what do you know? That rhymed. J

 

Ciao,

N.

 

Of course, Sam hadn't been waiting by the computer or anything. She just happened to be in the office. Watching horrible YouTube videos because that's exactly what she wanted to be doing. It was merely coincidental that she retrieved Natalie's return missive as soon as it was sent.

Knowing she might seem desperate and needy, and feeling disgusted with herself for it, she hit “reply” immediately.

N.,

 

Why don't you sign your actual name? Do you dislike it? Did typing such a lengthy epistle leave your fingers too weary to strike those six additional keys? Are you writing from a secret personality you possess but have thus far been nervous about revealing?

 

There is indeed snow in Stowe. The sloping ground is aglow. The glistening white blanket stretches across many a furlough. Mother Nature has put on quite a show, sending twinkling flakes to embrace the rosy cheeks of those below.

 

I miss school. I suppose I'm supposed to be too cool to say things like that, but I trust now that I'm in college I can embrace more openly my love of learning. I'm more at home in the lab among glass containers waiting to be filled with solutions, both liquid and metaphoric. Here I'm lost between my mother's infectious sadness and silence and my father's overcompensating chatter. Even in the same room, the three of us are often solitary, separated by seas of troubles, waves of past accusations or slights, tsunamis of fear and resentment. No lifeboats to unite us in the struggle for survival. Only individual life vests, garish in their brightness and insufficiency.

 

I digress. School. Science and medicine (eventually) and the time honored, noble goal of working for the betterment of your fellow man. Or woman. Fellow person just doesn't have the right ring. Fellow fellow would alliterate, but alas is similarly male-centric. Fellow failures, my mother might propose. Fellow fakers, might be my father's cynical rejoinder.

 

Repeated digressions. Must be the late hour. We were discussing school. I return on Saturday. I hope to see you shortly thereafter. May your travels be safe and free of turbulence in all its forms.

 

Best,

Sam

 

**

It was the day after Thanksgiving and Sam felt like a small child again. Although things had been strained between them for years, Sam's parents had rarely fought, her father knowing Eva was too fragile to handle it. The few times when they had disagreed about something serious, Jack simply fled to Boston to stay with his bachelor brother and Eva retreated inside herself, the bout of depression which followed often lasting up to a month. Sam alternated between calling her father, pleading with him to return, and sitting by Eva's side, encouraging her to eat or work.

But Sam knew this one was different. She didn't know what precipitated this particular altercation, but when she returned from Bear Pond Books, where she'd been studying, her dad was thrusting a stack of boxes haphazardly into the back of his car. Jack had never threatened to leave before, and his wife and daughter had no doubt he meant it when he vowed it was over. The two women stood side by side in the front lawn, Sam chewing her nails, Eva with her arms crossed, watching Jack's trips to and from the house as though riveted by a tennis match. When he wasn't ignoring them, he would glance regretfully at Sam; he avoided all eye contact with his wife, who for her part seemed to want him to just hurry up and leave.

The trunk and backseat loaded, he wiped his hands down his chinos, embraced them, and said goodbye. His last words to Eva would play on repeat in Sam's head for months to come: “I'll always love you, Eva, but I can't live like this anymore.” He then turned to his daughter and, kissing her on the forehead, instructed her, “do what you can to take care of her, Samantha, but don't let her suck you dry like she did to me.” Sam had been too numb to respond.

Mother and daughter held hands as they watched the Lexus reverse down the driveway, and wind down the street out of sight.

Eva guided Sam back inside, sat her down at the table, and began pulling Thanksgiving leftovers out of the fridge. Dazed, Sam mutely watched her mother bustle about the kitchen, surprised at this role reversal.

“I'm not a child, you know. I don't know who he thinks he is, but he wasn't my caregiver. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. Always acting so put-upon and playing the victim, like my depression happened more to him than to me! I know I can be challenging, but all marriages are hard! And he's no angel either.” Eva continued muttering softly, and Sam was relieved to learn her mother's reaction to Jack's departure involved anger and resentment, rather than self-pity and fear. She shook her head, trying to clear the sense of loss that had settled inside her. She began to rise, thinking she would assist her mother in reheating turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes, but Eva waved her back to her seat. “I don't need your help either, you know. I'm still the mother here, Samantha, so you please just sit there and I'll make you lunch.”

Something akin to a rueful smile tugged at the corners of Sam's mouth as she watched her mother take control of the situation. Appreciating how important it was in that moment to let Eva mother her, Sam politely requested a glass of milk, which was almost immediately deposited in front of her.

As her mom tapped her fingers on the countertop, waiting for the microwave to ding, Sam wondered how Eva would support herself now. Art sales always contributed to the family's finances, but it was Jack's private medical practice that afforded the Latham family the lifestyle to which they had grown accustomed. Noting that only nine seconds remained before lunch would be heated, Sam carefully arranged her face into something she hoped was a neutral expression, not wanting to add financial concerns to the already fraught situation.

The food plated and served, the two women poked at the leftovers and tried to pretend they were hungry. Eva sighed and dropped her fork heavily.

“Tell me more about school, please. Tell me about your friends there.” It seemed ludicrous to Sam that they would be talking about her life at Yale now, instead of how Eva felt about Jack's abrupt departure and what her future might hold, but Sam knew that the brain, when overwhelmed, preferred to focus on small, digestible morsels of information, letting in traumatic events bit by bit long after they occurred. And so Sam found herself describing her friend from California with the weird fashion sense.

That afternoon Eva drove them to the theater to see a matinee of Love Actually and treated them to dinner at a quaint French bistro. When on the drive home Sam suggested remaining in Stowe another day, Eva quickly squashed that notion, pointing out that they would see one another in a few weeks for Christmas and reiterating that she was quite capable of managing on her own.

An internal battle waged in Sam's head, one side claiming that Eva was putting on a good show but desperately needed the comfort of her daughter right now, and the other contending that Eva was a grown woman who would ask for help if she needed it. She wondered how important a feeling of independence would be to her mother's fragile emotional state as she tried to ascertain how best to help her. Eventually her mother's tone brokered no argument and Sam agreed to return to campus the following day, as planned.

After Sam loaded her bag and the leftovers her mom insisted she take into the car, the two women shared a long hug. Eva pulled away first and, placing one hand on each of her daughter's shoulders, imparted motherly advice. “Don't you work so hard you forget you're in college. You have the rest of your life to put in endless hours. Go out, Samantha. Meet new people and try new things. I bet that Natalie could show you a good time.” Sam blinked at the last comment, trying to figure out if there was a hidden meaning there, but her mother's expression offered no signs of double entendre. “I love you. Drive safely and call me when you get there.” She kissed her daughter on the cheek, spun her toward the car, and swatted her butt. “Off you go now.”

Sam watched her mom in her review mirror until she rounded a curve and could no longer see curly red hair billowing in the wind and long, delicate fingers waving goodbye.

June 2008

The physical therapist had been optimistic. She drew support for this claim from the meticulous notes she logged during their in-person sessions, cataloguing the growing number of repetitions the recovering woman was able to do, along with the increased range of motion or type of resistance she could withstand. Although it was clear to everyone that Eva despised physical therapy, grumbling constantly about how much pain she was in and how hard the exercises were, the former artist was slowly regaining muscle mass and flexibility. But the dexterity drills the therapist had instructed mother and daughter to perform every evening were exercises in frustration, literally. Sam fought vainly against her resentment toward the toys a four-year-old could master, but which proved beyond her fifty-eight-year old mom. Placing square pegs in square holes, fitting plastic keys to appropriately-sized locks, cranking levers and spinning dials were as basic as riding a bike, Sam had thought, but apparently one could indeed forget such rudimentary skills.

Such tasks threw into sharp relief the extent of Eva's setback, and the vast distance the pair had to travel before Sam could find comfort in new accomplishments. Because whatever the therapist said, turning a huge plastic screw with a huge plastic screwdriver was not something to get excited about. It was something to hang your head over, wracked with self-pity and such a heavy dose of angst that a middle-schooler pouring over Wuthering Heights would be jealous.

She heaved a heavy, demoralized sigh as she bent down and retrieved the bright orange screw from the carpet where Eva had dropped it and returned it to her mother's lap. “You're doing great, Mom,” she said, but her tone said, “are we done yet?”

Eva raised her tired head and her eyes, blue and dull and surrounded by dark circles, gazed into Sam's. Long seconds ticked away. “What does she see when she looks at me?” the dejected scientist wondered. What she said was, “are you hungry?”

A brief nod, then Eva's head drooped, her now mostly-gray locks obscuring her features. Sam ran her fingers through the formerly red curls and heard a sign of contentment emanate from the form beneath her.

While she waited for the water to boil, she chopped mushrooms, onions, and green peppers. When the bubbles began, she dropped half a box of penne into boiling water and began sautéing the vegetables in another pan with oil and garlic. When all was cooked, she assembled the ingredients in a large bowl and doused them with marinara sauce from a jar, then covered the mound with a healthy dose of pepper and parmesan cheese. Her new rule in the kitchen was that as long as there were vegetables involved, dinner could be considered a nutritious success, and she was proud of herself with this one.

She wheeled Eva to the table, and mother and daughter dined in silence. Clearing the dishes she had decided she would wash later, after tucking her patient into bed, Sam opened a box and dumped a thousand puzzle pieces onto the table with a flourish. She wasn't sure how this little activity would go over, but at least it would keep her mildly entertained. During dinner she'd decided she needed to learn how to take pleasure in simple tasks that yielded physical evidence of success. She was midway through turning all the pieces right-side up when she noticed long pale fingers from across the table begin to help her. They trembled as they clasped tiny cardboard shapes, and not every piece was overturned successfully on the first try. Still, Sam found comfort not only in the small accomplishment of righted puzzle pieces, but also in the fact that her mother made the effort at all, of her own accord, and with a faint smile tugging at the corner of her lips.

“How long has it been since we've done a puzzle together, Mom?”

“You were in grade school,” came the low response, surprising in its lucidity.

“Well, shall we see how rusty we are?”

Blue eyes, weary but with the hint of a sparkle, raised and found Sam's. “Some things you don't forget.”

They started in the middle, because that was always Eva's favorite place to start.

December 2003

Natalie rolled her eyes at Sam. “Look, I love that you sleep on my couch when your roommate annoys you, but I think we're going to need some ground rules here. You can't sleep in jeans. You just can't. It's bad for you.”

“Really. It's bad for me. I'm so sure.”

“It is.”

“Please. Explain to me the health hazards of sleeping in denim. Does it cut off my circulation in some way I've never discerned? Will I contract a permanent rash? Does denim-itis entail sneezing fits?”

“Smart ass. I don't know how or why it's bad for you. It just is.”

“Persuasive.” Sam rolled her eyes. “Well, this is all I have.”

“You could sleep without pants.” Natalie smiled pointedly, knowing full well Sam would blush and stammer, unable to come up with a clever comeback. Natalie had never met anyone with such body issues.

Finally Sam mumbled something about Natalie's roommate and propriety and plopped down on the couch, pulling the blanket over her denim-clad knees.

Sighing, Natalie dropped next to her, facing her reticent friend. “Fine, wear what you want to bed. So what did Tracy do this time?”

“Tracy?”

“Yeah, you know, the roommate whose annoying antics drive you out of your own bed at least three times a week?”

“Oh, right. I don't remember.” Sam was clearly distracted by something. “Hey, are we still going shopping tomorrow?”

“You know it. Wouldn't miss the chance to drag you around a mall. Besides, Wheels, we don't want your battery to go dead from lack of use.” Natalie winked at her brunette friend.

“Hardly. With you around, it's more like the tread on my tires wearing thin.”

Concerned, Natalie quickly asked, “You don't mind, do you? I can give you more money for gas.”

Sam laughed. “Take it easy, California. I don't mind. You know I like driving around with you.”

They sat in companionable silence a few moments, admiring the waist-high fake Christmas tree in the corner of Natalie's common room.

“Did you decide what you're getting your dad?” Natalie wasn't sure if he would be a welcome topic of conversation, but thought her quiet friend needed to talk about him.

“You mean, besides a kick in the … proverbial… you-know-what, as they say.” Sam replied, bitterly.

“You can say ‘ass,' you know. If you're going to be a sometimes-writer, you should be comfortable using all the words in the English language.”

“I am. You're a complete … ass … you know.” Sam choked on the word, but managed to get it out, a weak smile playing on her lips as she tried in vain to look put out with Natalie.

“Yeah, I know. It's cool, though, I don't think there are enough complete asses in the world and I want to do my part.”

They laughed together and smiled at each other. As Sam's smile fell, so did her eyes and she gazed at the Christmas tree unseeing. “Sometimes I can't blame him. Mom's no picnic. He obviously cares, right? I mean, he still tries to provide for us even though he can't be there, you know? He sends money.”

Sam's father had moved his private medical practice to somewhere in D.C. and Sam suspected that he would be starting a new family here soon. One with less emotional baggage.

“Sending money seems a cold way to care for someone,” Natalie said gently.

“Well, he's got to look out for himself too, you know. But yeah, obviously, I wish he'd stayed.”

“He doesn't have your strength,” Natalie observed.

Sam's gaze shifted from the Christmas tree to concerned green eyes. “I'm not so very strong,” she explained softly, before dropping her eyes to study the hands folded in her lap.

Natalie allowed her friend a few moments of contemplation before placing her hand on Sam's cheek and bringing her face around to make eye contract. “You are strong, Sam. I hope you never have to find out how strong you really are.”

Natalie opened her arms and Sam allowed herself to curl up into the comfort Natalie offered.

“Sam, you know you're not responsible for your mom, right? Or your parents' marriage?”

Sam's eyes closed. “My head knows, but my heart doesn't.”

June 2008

“Hi, Dad.”

“Hi, Honey. How's my pumpkin?”

She wanted to be annoyed at him for using an infantilizing pet name, and she wanted to feel contempt toward him for calling instead of physically being there, but she couldn't stop the smile that pulled at the corners of her mouth. She loved her father – had adored him so much she wanted to be just like him when she grew up, even following in his career path.

“It's nice to hear your voice. I'm fine. We're fine. How's D.C.?”

“Peh, we don't need to talk about that. How is she today?”

“Better than yesterday, not as good as the day before. We've mastered the cadence of two steps forward, one step back, with aplomb.”

“That's a routine I can accept.”

Sam was tempted to remind him that it was easy for him to embrace this dance when he lived half a dozen states away, but she bit the words back, knowing they would do no good.

“Yeah, we'll get there eventually. Wherever ‘there' is.”

“Only time will tell that. What do you need?”

“I honestly don't know,” the enormity of what she needed overwhelming her rationality.

“Of course, you needn't worry about money.”

After a pause, she began, “Dad, I hate to ask …”

“I can't, honey.”

“She's not the same. She's not depressed anymore.” Sam hated that she couldn't hide the pleading from her voice.

“I know. Of course, I feel like a cad about this, Samantha, but I left your mother long before this happened. I've moved on. I just can't go back. I care about her tremendously, but I'm not her husband anymore. I haven't been for a long time.”

“Will you come visit? Please?” Sam gave up pretending she wasn't begging.

“I think it would just confuse her. I think it's best if I'm the silent partner in her recovery process.”

“God, that sounds so clinical. So formal,” Sam said with distaste.

“It sounds honest. I'm sorry I can't do more. Please let me know what you need financially. And Sam, when she's back on her feet enough, I'd love it if you would come visit me.”

“I think we're a long way from that, Dad.”

“Well, I'll check in regularly. Hang in there, Champ. I love you.”

“Love you, too, Dad.” Sam listened to the low dial tone for a few beats, wondering which of her conflicting emotions would prevail. Ultimately, her affection for her father and her gratitude that he was staying involved, in his own distant way, triumphed over her resentment. After returning the phone to its cradle, she crossed the living room to her dozing mother and nudged her gently. “Hey Mom, how does some ice cream sound? Think you'd be up for that?”

“Mint chocolate chip?” the drowsy woman asked, hopefully.

“Oh, definitely. At least one scoop. Maybe more.” She wiggled her eyebrows and grinned.

Her step was lighter than it had been in days as she rolled Eva toward the door and down the newly-installed ramp to the driveway. She might be the only person in the house attending to the recovering woman, but she wasn't completely alone in this herculean endeavor either.

December 2003

Sam sauntered from the English building across campus toward the theater. Or maybe she ambled. Perhaps it was a mosey. No, moseying required more hip action. Sighing, she reflected that her preoccupation with defining her walk would not provide a reasonable cover if Natalie inquired about her presence in the rehearsal space. Giving up suave excuses as a bad job, Sam decided she'd play the “helping a friend in need” role. She poked her head into the darkened theater and squinted, pausing while her eyes adjusted. After a few blinks, she picked out the blond head in the third row, gesturing toward the lights as she gave instructions to the designer. She overheard her friend's suggestion to the LD.

“I'm the first to admit I don't know much about lights, but given how old these units are and how hard it is to get an even wash with such few lighting positions, what if we just dropped gobos into the front light and embraced lighting holes as a look?”

David chuckled. “Not sure I buy your theory, but I'll give it a whirl. I can do it by tomorrow's cue-to-cue.”

From her hiding place in the darkened theater, Sam observed the way Natalie gestured at the lighting units hanging above them, and the areas on the stage that needed more fill. Deep in concentration, nibbling on the earpiece of her glasses, she exuded confidence and ease, and Sam found her far sexier in unguarded moments like this than when she was scantily clad and in full-on seduction mode. Natalie tossed her head, flicking overgrown bangs from her eyes, and bit her lower lip as she contemplated color options for the sidelight. Sam's stomach clenched, her heartbeat doubling its pace, and she swallowed hard as arousal coursed through her. When Natalie's hand swept across the air in front of her, the director responding to a question about top light, fantasies of those hands on her body flooded Sam's mind and she felt her face grow hot. Natalie sighed about something and Sam closed her eyes, wishing the warm air from that heavy exhale was on her skin.

Dimly, through a haze of desire, Sam heard David say something that sounded like a goodbye, and she tried to pull herself out of her longing, to ignore the heat coursing through her.

“Great, thanks. Everything else looks beautiful. You do nice work. I'm gonna do some character exercises with the actors for the rest of rehearsal, but after that you can have the space until 6pm tomorrow.”

Sam stuffed her hands in her pockets, willing her body to still and cool as she strolled down the aisle toward Natalie, exchanging nods with David as they passed each other. Standing behind the seated woman, Sam took a minute to absorb her smell and take in her attire. Rectangular glasses, black slacks, high-heeled black boots, and some confusing but flattering layers of black clothing on top. Ah, the architect look today. Despite her penchant for hiding behind her own clothes, Sam found she enjoyed her friend's unpredictable fashion statements.

Sam cleared her throat. “Madam Director. I sense sustenance is in order. Might I interest you in every college student's favorite late-night nourishment, a pizza pie?” She grinned, knowing Natalie's weakness.

“Hey you!” Natalie leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “You are an angel. Goddamn, pizza sounds perfect.” Fishing a ten out of her pocket, the director returned the smile. “Add mushrooms and I'll love you forever.”

Sam coughed.

“You okay there, cowgirl?” Natalie patted Sam on the back.

“For a nice little Protestant girl, you sure throw God's name around a lot,” Sam choked out, glad to have latched onto something else in Natalie's reply besides her offer of enduring love. Her cheek burned where Natalie's lips had lingered for the briefest of moments, and her legs had melted into rubber.

Natalie noticed her staring, and as their eyes locked a flash of something hot flitted across her face.

As quickly as it appeared it vanished and Sam was left wondering if the lust she thought she caught there had been only wishful thinking.

She swiftly turned away and exited the theater.

**

“Merry Christmas, Sam,” Natalie said as she handed Sam a brightly-wrapped package. Sam placed the box on her lap, leaned forward on the futon, snatched up an equally large box, and offered it to her blond friend.

“Merry Christmas yourself. Is this your ski instructor look?”

Natalie looked down at her grey and black turtleneck and the white North Face puffy coat on the couch next to her and smirked. “No, silly, I'm actually going skiing. Tom's parents have a cabin. We're leaving late tonight.”

“Oh. Well, please don't break any lungs or collapse any bones,” Sam chided wryly, trying to remember which unlucky fellow Natalie had abandoned when she turned her attention to Tom.

“Weirdo. Okay, c'mon, open yours.” Sam carefully removed the wrapping paper and lifted the lid of the rectangular clothes box. Nestled in white tissue paper were a pair of green and blue plaid pajama pants and a tee-shirt with the outlines of Vermont and New Hampshire that read “Vermont: Spooning New Hampshire since 1781.” “Since you've taken up residence on my couch …” Natalie trailed off.

Sam was equal parts touched and amused, and she leaned over and hugged Natalie briefly, careful to pull back from something she knew she'd enjoy too much. “One good turn …” she said, indicating the box in Natalie's lap. Never believing patience was actually a virtue, Natalie tore into the wrapping paper and whipped off the lid in a flourish. The box contained a random assortment of presents, including drumsticks, an architectural scale, a snorkel and mask, and book on pointillism, and a canister of racquetballs. Natalie grinned sheepishly, recognizing in the box accoutrements for various activities she'd at one point or another expressed an interest in, whether she remembered it or not.

“You'd never said anything about skiing, or I would have put a pair of those hideous goggles in there, too,” Sam teased.

“Samantha Latham, you are too much!” Natalie threw her arms around Sam, and held on even as Sam tried to pull away. “Oh no you don't. You're getting a proper hug, and you'll suffer through it!” Sam gave in, and enjoyed the warmth of Natalie's arms and the tickle of her hair. This time, when Natalie tried to pull away, Sam held on. Natalie chuckled softly, and with one hand she put their presents on the floor. She resituated them on the couch so they were snuggling and they remained that way, listening to “Let it Snow” on Natalie's “Christmas” playlist.

“Hey Sam,” she started, gently, “you gonna be alright at home these next two weeks?” Sam didn't answer. “You can always call me. Day or night, okay? You know that, right?”

“I know.” Sam's voice was muffled by Natalie's sweater. The two women held each other, safe and happy in one another's arms, both grateful for the love they shared.

May 2004

Freshman year had been a rollercoaster for Sam. Academically, she had performed so impressively that her molecular biology professor invited her to be his research assistant for the summer, a position almost unheard of for a rising sophomore. They would be researching pluripotent adult stem cells and their differentiation potential. Sam didn't expect she'd be let anywhere near the lab just yet, but was thrilled to work on the paperwork documenting Dr. West's progress. Given the rigorous course-load Sam had completed during her freshman year, Dr. West had encouraged her to apply for the B.S./M.S. degree program in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Dr. West assured her that she would learn something that summer which would become the basis for her own research and ultimately her Master's thesis, and she could still graduate in four years.

And so, Sam was would spend a week at the beginning of summer and two at the end of it in Stowe, but would be at Yale the rest of break. She vowed to call her mother every Sunday.

Natalie had taken an unpaid internship at an off-Broadway theater. Sam was thrilled they would be only two hours apart.

Natalie, currently wearing a 60s vintage dress and throwback peep-toe heels, bustled around her room preparing to leave for New York. As she folded another shirt and placed it gently in her suitcase Sam, perched on her bed, asked what would be expected of her in her capacity as an intern.

“You know, I don't know! I didn't really think to ask. Copying scripts, probably.” She rolled up a belt and placed it next to the shirt in the suitcase.

“Didn't the job posting list the position's responsibilities?” Sam inquired.

Natalie looked confused for a moment. “Oh! No, I didn't read a job posting. My dad went to college with the Executive Director, so when I mentioned to Papa that I wanted to be in New York this summer, he made a call. I'm not even sure if they've ever had an intern before. They're a pretty small organization. Ooh, maybe I'll get to sit in on design meetings!”

Sam shook her head at her friend's devil-may-care attitude. Given how many discussions they'd had about whether Natalie should ask her father to pay the extra two hundred dollars per month to sublet a place in Manhattan rather than Brooklyn, it was clear Natalie was more concerned with her quality of life for the next three months than garnering meaningful career experience.

Natalie unceremoniously dumped the socks she'd been folding back onto the bed and put her hands on her hips. “Don't you go judging me, Samantha Latham. I plan on having a good time this summer. I have something respectable to put on my resume, and I'm going to live it up in the city for three months, and that doesn't make me a slacker.” She paused and cocked her head a little. “Two semesters of barely going to class and phoning in my papers makes me a slacker. But I'll photocopy the hell out of this internship for the eight hours a day I'm at the theater.”

After sliding some sheet music into a messenger bag, Natalie again stood still in front of Sam. “You're going to stop by the Columbus House every Sunday, right?”

“Yes, ma'am,” Sam nodded, and saluted mockingly. The two freshmen had visited the shelter every Sunday, Sam keeping the kids company while they waited for their fifteen minute lessons on the keyboard with Natalie. Turnover was high at Columbus House, and Sam had been dutifully taking her own weekly lessons with Natalie, so the two had agreed Sam was advanced enough on the piano to step into the role of instructor for the summer. “I'm looking forward to it. We'll get to see if you've really taught me anything after all this time.”

Natalie thought about teasing her student, but decided the moment called for sincerity instead. She leaned down and kissed Sam's forehead. “You're going to be a wonderful teacher.”

“Thank you. And you're going to be a wonderful intern.” Sam bit the inside of her cheek. She knew most of their classmates were taking it easy this summer and she tried to remind herself that she preferred to spend her summer laboring over lab reports for Dr. West and not with Natalie enjoying New York. Not with New York, enjoying Natalie. “I think maybe I'm a little jealous,” Sam admitted, sheepishly.

Natalie scooped up the socks she'd discarded and paired them. “Why on earth would you be jealous?”

Sam wasn't sure how to answer. “Maybe I'm just tired of working so hard.”

Natalie moved on to the pile of tangled jeans in her laundry basket and began tugging the wrinkles out of them. “Sam, there's no way you'd last three days at an internship where nothing was really expected of you besides copying stuff. You'd think it was beneath you and you'd go crazy with boredom.”

Wounded, Sam hung her head a bit. “Wow, do you really think I'm that big a snob?”

Natalie rushed to clarify, “No, no! I just think you won't be happy settling for anything less than what you know you deserve. You're brilliant and dedicated, and you should devote your talents to an occupation equal to them.” She paused, then said pointedly, “you should devote your love to someone equal to it.”

Sam swallowed. Her heart had grown heavy, and she felt a weight on her chest that made breathing difficult. She didn't want to have this discussion, not with Natalie Romano. Recognizing Sam's struggle, Natalie turned her back on her friend to give her space. She rummaged around her desk until she found two suckers, left over from the Easter basket her mom had sent her. She popped a root beer one into her mouth and turning, tossed a cherry one to Sam.

Sam bit her lip as she slowly unwrapped the hard candy.

“Sam?” Natalie asked gently. Sad green eyes raised to meet hers. “You should go out this summer. Meet people. Date, even. Maybe you'll find a cute woman in the lab. Someone who shares your interests.”

Natalie's suggestion was met with a noncommittal nod.

Sam steeled herself to ask her next question, not sure which answer she preferred. “Is Ronaldo going to be in the city this summer, too?” If he were, then it would mean Natalie had been with one guy for over a month, which might indicate she wanted something more serious with him. If he weren't going to be in New York, that left Natalie's social calendar (and, if Sam were being brutally honest, her bed) free to be occupied by any number of new men.

Natalie twirled the sucker in her mouth. “Oh, he's of the past,” she responded lightly, her eyes sparkling as she waited to see if Sam would get her reference.

“Oh? Would he have to crawl on his hands and knees to get you to go to the dance with him?”

Natalie giggled as she twirled the sucker in the opposite direction. “Yep. Which, actually, he's supposed to do after practice, so I'm gonna wait.”

Finally, Sam smiled. “You know, you look a little like Buffy,” she mused, gazing at her blond Californian friend who was a shade too thin and wore leather jackets like nobody's business. “And you do seem to burn through men who are completely bad for you.”

Natalie grinned. “I think the similarities stop at, ‘she saved the world a lot.'”

The mood in dorm room slightly lighter, the two women began making plans for Sam's first visit to New York. They decided to see a Shakespeare in the Park show, visit the Met, and walk around Battery Park. By unspoken agreement, they would avoid any bars or clubs which might be pickup scenes. Natalie, it turns out, would be subletting a one-bedroom in the Financial District, and Sam would crash on her couch.

Now all that was left was surviving the next three weeks without Natalie. While the two students didn't see one another every day, the knowledge that the vibrant and whimsical woman she'd given her heart to was never far away had filled Sam with warmth and contentment. Suddenly the miles between Connecticut and New York loomed long and cold.

Natalie zipped her now-full suitcase closed and nudged her empty laundry basket toward Sam, who would be keeping it and a number of Natalie's other possessions in her dorm room for the summer.

They made one last sweep of the empty dorm and, satisfied that nothing was left behind, headed to Sam's to deposit the laundry basket.

“Want me to walk you to the station?” Sam offered, unsure whether she'd prefer to say goodbye in the privacy of her room or if she'd rather have the fifteen extra minutes with her friend. It seemed everything about Natalie filled her with ambivalence.

“Let's say goodbye here,” came Natalie's answer. She set down her suitcase and backpack and the two women gazed at one another for a long moment. Tears swam in both their eyes and then they were in each other's arms. Natalie stroked Sam's raven hair and sniffled. “I'll miss you, you know.”

Sam could only nod, not trusting her voice.

Natalie pulled away first. She grinned at her friend. “Three weeks isn't that long. Try to have some fun between now and then.” She placed a soft kiss on Sam's cheek, gathered her bags, and with a quick backward glance, was gone.

Summer 2004

The summer passed slowly, hot and sticky outside and over-air-conditioned inside. Even in areas without irrigation systems, flowers, trees, and grass flourished, kept moist and brilliant by the heavy humidity that blanketed the East Coast.

Natalie proved impossible to get on the telephone and Sam surmised she spent most of her non-internship hours exploring the city and the men who populated it. During their few brief weekend visits, Natalie's cell rang almost constantly, and in the forty-eight hours of Sam's first trip she screened calls from three actors, two architects, a pastry chef, an investment banker, and two lawyers, all of whom she'd gone out with at least once.

When she returned to New Haven, Sam pledged to herself that she too would date, and by mid-summer she did in fact locate a cute graduate student named Carrie working in the lab. After a handful of charming interactions in and around the science complex, Sam asked her over for a drink one night and half-way through a bottle of merlot Carrie leaned over and kissed her. Her lips were full and warm and all of Sam's thoughts of the woman an hour and a half away disappeared. At the end of a long evening spent making out, Sam mentioned that she'd like to see Carrie again, and was promptly invited to dinner the next night. For the remaining half of the summer, they basked in the glow of learning someone new. They bought each other little presents to break up the long days spent processing data and burned CDs to fill the silence of their respective offices. Their nights were spent exploring New Haven and each other.

Carrie, a first-year Ph.D. student at UCLA, was in New Haven on a summer research grant, and when August ended, so did their relationship. But they had enjoyed each other's company and grown to care for one another, and they sporadically kept in touch in the years that followed. Sam was happy to have connected with someone, to have been touched and appreciated, to have given and received, and sophomore year commenced with her confidence higher than it had ever been.

October 2004

“I don't understand the impulse to cavort around in as little clothing as possible when the temperature is near freezing and there are plenty of respectable, creative costumes that would keep you warm.”

Natalie snickered at Sam's sense of propriety. “I'll wear a coat, Silly. I'm only going to be cold for the walk to the frat house. It'll be boiling once I get inside.”

The musician preened in Sam's mirror, fluffing her blond hair and reapplying lip gloss.

“So who's the lucky fella tonight?” Sam forced her voice to sound even, casual. She was surprised when she noticed the color of Natalie's cheeks reddening slightly, and her eyebrows rose when the woman in red heels and a nearly-obscene nurse's costume dropped her eyes and mumbled, “I'm not ready to talk about it yet.”

Sam cleared her throat but still croaked her response. “Sure, of course. Tell me later. Or not. Whatever.”

In the year they had cultivated their friendship, Natalie had fooled around with a slew of men and boys, but they both knew she hadn't really fallen for any of them. The scientist's stomach churned as she thought about losing Natalie to a serious relationship, and she fumbled for the arm of her desk chair before she collapsed into it, the wheels taking her backwards a bit until she collided with her desk.

“Really, it might be nothing. I don't know.” The Californian turned to her with compassion in her eyes. “I hope you enjoy the book.” She inclined her head at Ender's Game , now resting atop a stack of science textbooks and under a couple of oatmeal raisin cookies she'd brought for her reclusive friend. “I can't believe you didn't read it in high school.”

Rubbing her temples, the avid reader murmured something about everyone having holes in their cultural literacy.


“I still think you'd have more fun at the party than home alone reading.”

“Thanks, but I've been looking forward to a night by myself, reading a good book, since the semester started. Have a good time.” Sam wished she could say it more sincerely.

The women stared at one another from across the room, each wishing there were more to say. Finally, Natalie nodded, turned, and left.

November 2004

Sam grabbed the phone from her nightstand on the second ring, but finished the sentence she was reading before answering. “Hi Mom.”

“Sam, dear, how are you? I've been worried – you haven't returned my phone call.”

“Mom, you only called yesterday! I'm fine. Been busy at the lab.”

“Yes, I know, you are very busy. But there's always time for a three-minute call to your mother.”

“Yeah, if only our calls stopped at three minutes.”

“I'm sure I don't know what you mean. Listen, Sweetie, I have some news for you. I've decided to start quilting. I know, I know, I've mostly been working with metals lately, but I like the juxtaposition – hard and brittle, with soft and pliable. Besides, there's this quilting contest I think I could be ready for. And this is all in keeping with my new focus on functional art – jewelry, chairs, and now quilts.”

Eva continued, but Sam was only half listening. She appreciated her mother's enthusiasm for new art projects, but just couldn't get interested in the vagaries of genre, material, or composition. Her mother was a moderately talented folk artist, her work offering a quaint combination of representation and abstraction. The scientist's focus shifted back to the book on her lap, and she thumbed through it until she reached the last page of prose before the appendix. Calculating 120 more pages to read, she sighed, audibly.

“What was that, Honey?”

“Nothing. Please, continue. I'm listening.”

“Well, that's a first,” Eva chided. “Anyway, like I was saying, I want to try a turkey this year. Do you think I can handle it?”

Sam protested. “Aw, Mom, we don't need a turkey. It's just the two of us and you've never made one before.”

“But I want this year to be special. You're growing up so much, and I know soon you won't always come home for Thanksgiving,” Eva explained.

“Mom, that's very sweet. Sure, yeah, let's make a turkey. I'll help.” Sam offered.

“Perfect, Dear. I'll ask around for recipes for stuffing and gravy and all those fixins. I can't believe I just said fixins,” she chuckled, pleased with herself.

Sam laughed. “Mom, let's not go overboard! I don't think I could handle all those leftovers.”

True to her word, however, Eva had gathered a number of recipes for Thanksgiving fare, and even made a shopping list. It was, of course, incomplete, and Sam had double-checked everything before setting out for the store. Sam learned that shopping at 9:00 p.m. the evening before Thanksgiving was an exercise in frustration, as one in every four ingredients on her list was sold out. She substituted as best she could, with her limited cooking knowledge, and mother and daughter muddled through sautéing, simmering, roasting, and baking various foods. Everything turned out alright – certainly not delicious, but more than edible. The weather cooperated with their desire for an after-dinner stroll, and owl hoots accompanied their meandering feet and conversation. The two women enjoyed a holiday with no depression, only the nostalgia that accompanies all major holidays. Sam even found herself enjoying Eva's lengthy monologues about an upcoming gallery show in Chicago she planned to attend and the amount of money she was making from her jewelry sales. When Eva kissed her forehead and wished her a good night, after all the dishes were cleaned and the leftovers installed in Tupperware homes, Sam felt a wave of happiness wash over her. She realized in that moment that she was lucky to have a mother who cared, and who occasionally managed to pull it together enough to show her.

And when Sam was happy, there was only one person she wanted to share that feeling with. Natalie answered on the first ring with “about time you called!”

January 2005

Sam's phone was ringing. She closed her copy of Leaves of Grass and rubbed her eyes. It was after midnight, and she had been hoping to read herself to sleep after a long day of meetings with Dr. West. He intended to nominate her for a research award, and had wanted to nail down a firm schedule for when Sam would complete her experiments and begin writing up her results. He had started encouraging her to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. at Stanford when she graduated from Yale. The chair of Stanford Medicine, a woman he had gone to school with, was visiting Yale next week, and he wanted to introduce his promising new student to the woman he hoped would advise her graduate studies. It was so much good news Sam had opened a bottle of Shiraz when she returned to her dorm and was drinking a glass to celebrate. She wished she could share her joy with Natalie, but the now-classics major hadn't answered her cell earlier. Sam had done the math, and it would appear Natalie was in her third month of a relationship she still refused to talk about.

She glanced at the phone screen and recognized the number as her mom's landline. “You're up late, Ma,” she offered by way of greeting.

“Sam, it's Dolores, from next door. Sam, dear, something's happened to your mom.” Sam bolted up right and threw the sheet and covers off. She continued to listen as she hurried to her closet and began dressing, one-handed. “I think she tried to … well, anyway, she's very sick, and I've just called for an ambulance. I was dragging the garbage cans out to the curb for pickup in the morning, and I heard a noise, and since you asked me to keep an eye out for your mama while you're away at school … well, anyway, I think it's best you know that she's … well anyway, she's unconscious still, but I checked for a pulse and she's got one. I'll stay here until the ambulance comes, and then I'll come over tomorrow to check on your cat. What's her name again? Something Greek, I think. Well, anyway. Sam, she … she tried to …well, clearly she was unsuccessful.”

Sam felt bad as her neighbor continued struggling to say what Sam had dreaded since she left for school. “Dolores, I understand. She tried to kill herself, right? It's happened before.”

“Oh dear. It has? I never knew.”

“I can only assume that since you heard a loud noise, she tried to hang herself?”

“Well, yes, dear, but the rope didn't hold and she fell. I think she hit her head on the chair she had kicked over. There's rather a lot of blood.”

“Dolores, I'll be at the hospital in a few hours. Thank you for calling me. For calling the ambulance. Everything. Don't worry about cleaning up, and I can take care of the cat when I get there. I'll stay for a couple of days. Oh, and please, Dolores, don't tell anyone.”

“Oh no, of course not, Dearie. Drive safely, Sam. It's a Friday, and I'm sure there are some inebriated fools on the roads this late.”

“Yes, I will. Thanks again, Dolores.”

As she drove, images flashed across Sam's eyes. Images of Eva in the bathtub sawing away at her wrist with a dull razor. When Sam was 14, it was pills. That one almost worked. Sam gripped the wheel tighter, her knuckles aching. Her jaw was clenched, and she knew it was giving her a headache, but she couldn't make her face relax. She was hurt and angry and scared. And pissed. Eva had been doing so well! Why? Why now?

She brushed aside tears of frustration and began berating herself aloud. “Who were you kidding? You can't go that far away for grad school. No way can you hop a flight home on your grad student stipend every time your mom tries to off herself.”

She regretted the glass of wine she'd had earlier. Intended to ease her mind, it only made her eyes throb and her head pound. She wanted Natalie. She was just weak enough to give in this time and call again, knowing Natalie wouldn't screen her twice in one night. She fumbled in her backpack in the passenger seat until her hand found her cell. Natalie answered gruffly on the fifth ring.

“Sam, I'm in the middle of something.”

Sam sighed. “Okay. I apologize for interrupting.”

Natalie's voice softened as she heard the strain in her friend's. “Darling, what is it? You sound terrible.”

“Yeah, I probably do. Listen, I'm going out of town for a bit. I wondered if you could feed my fish for me. I left the door unlocked.”

“Out of town? What for? Sam, what's going on?” Natalie demanded.

“It's my mom. She did something stupid and I need to go home.”

“Is she alright?”

“I think so, but she's in the hospital. I'm headed there now.”

“Dammit Sam, I would have gone with you.”

“I know. That's why I left before I called.”

“Samantha Latham, you drive me crazy.”

Sam thought about the irony of those words and drove in silence as long seconds ticked away.

“What do you mean, she did something stupid?” Natalie asked, softly.

Sam mentally shook her head at herself, wishing she hadn't said anything. “Nothing – forget about it.”

Natalie waited a moment, before gently asking, “Sam, did she try to kill herself?”

“What?! No! Of course not. Why would you think that? Of course not. No.” Sam floundered, repeating herself.

“Sam,” Natalie said gently. “I know you better than that. You're an awful liar. I know her a little too, through you. She's got depression, and she doesn't take her medication regularly. I get the impression from the stories you've told me that she's done this before.”

“Stop playing shrink with me, Freud. Psychology was what, three or four majors ago? And you didn't even go to class.” It was a rare outburst, and Sam instantly regretted her words. Natalie understood they came from the strain of the situation, even though the grain of truth in them cut.

“I'm sorry, Sam,” she said, a little clinically. “Please let me know if you need anything. I'm here if you need me.”

“Thanks. I appreciate that.” Sam softened. “I'll call you in the morning.”

“Drive safely, Sam. I love you.”

Sam never said it back. They both knew they wouldn't have meant it the same way, and it was an uneasy truce they landed on. Sam responded as she always did: “Later.” It was a promise, she hoped.

Four hours and two hundred and fifty miles later, Sam pulled her beloved Jetta into the hospital parking lot, stepped on the emergency break, and turned off the ignition. She got out of the car, slammed the door shut, and leaned against it. Watching her breath in the cold February air, she steeled herself for the next few days. Days away from her work and Natalie and the life she was finally starting to feel comfortable making for herself. Days spent with her mother in restraints while Sam talked until she was blue in the face about the importance of Eva staying on her medication. She took a deep breath, the cold air searing her throat, and began walking toward the hospital doors.

April 2005

As Sam approached the bench behind the psychology building, she took in Natalie's attire: a plaid flannel shirt over a white ribbed tank, jeans, and Doc Martins. 90s grunge? No, the shirt was tucked in, not tied around her waist. And the brown leather belt Natalie wore looked like it had been purchased in the men's section. Sam laughed at herself as she arrived at a second guess she was certain had to be off the mark. Natalie looked like she had just emerged from a lesbian dive bar. Shaking her head at herself, Sam plopped down next to her friend, who didn't look up. Her head was in her hands and her blond tresses obscured her eyes.

“Well, Lumberjack, can I hit you up for some firewood?” Sam teased.

When Natalie didn't move, Sam realized that perhaps Natalie was suffering from something other than a hangover and a really bad fashion choice. She tentatively reached out a hand, then found the courage to rest it on Natalie's shoulder. “Natalie?”

Natalie sat up enough to slump against Sam's side, resting her head on Sam's shoulder. The quiet scientist put her arm around her friend and stroked her hair. For long minutes, tears streamed off of Natalie's cheeks onto Sam's trademark leather jacket. When she found her voice again, Natalie quietly informed Sam, “guess this is what it feels like to be dumped.”

A small part of Sam wanted to laugh, but mostly her heart broke right along with her friend's. This, then, had been the relationship Natalie had refused to discuss – the one which had lasted six months. In the two years they had been friends, she'd never seen Natalie cry before. She wished in that moment that she kept a hanky in the breast pocket of her jacket so she could be very suave and offer it to her damsel in distress. Alas, she only had a single Kleenex, and it had been used. So instead, she pulled one of her sleeves down until it covered her palm, and offered it up to the miserable musician.

Natalie looked at the proffered sleeve and laughed weakly. It felt good to laugh, and she sat up and smiled faintly at her friend.

“What's the jerk-face's name, so I can go beat him up” Sam said, in her best tough-guy voice.

Natalie's half-hearted smile turned into a rueful one and she looked away. Swallowing, she closed her eyes a moment and cherished the friend at her side that she just might lose with her answer. “Vivian. Her name's Vivian.”

Silence.

Each woman sat lost in her thoughts as a squirrel flitted about the grove of trees in front of them. The sun ducked behind a cloud and Natalie shivered.

Finally Sam couldn't take it anymore. “Guess that explains the outfit.”

Both women finally, truly laughed, and Natalie found the strength to look into Sam's eyes again. “Well, we have to celebrate your first lesbian heartbreak, Ellen. This might derail your career for a bit, but don't worry, you'll come back with a vengeance. Let's go for a hike, since you're clearly dressed for it, and then let's go out and get you wasted.”

“How about we do the hike, and a movie at your place instead? I've had enough to drink lately.”

“Deal.” Sam rose, and offered her hand to Natalie. They drove, picked up ice cream, then hiked around Sleeping Giant park, just outside New Haven, during the last couple hours of sunlight. During their trek, Natalie filled Sam in on the details. She'd been making out with a redhead named Piper for a while, but knew it wasn't going anywhere. She'd always thought Vivian, a senior in the politics department, was gorgeous, so Natalie had come on strong one night after the two got caught in a rainstorm. Delighted when her advances were encouraged, Natalie had followed the aspiring politician home that night, which had been mind-blowing. But Vivian had thrown Natalie out before daybreak, worried about what people might think. They continued their nightly rendezvous for almost half a year, and Natalie had finally fallen. Hard. She stepped onto a log fallen over a shallow stream and slowly paced back and forth on the slippery wood. “God, Sam, the things that woman does to me. She's smart, and sophisticated in an Upper East Side kind of way. She took me to art galleries and jazz clubs in New York, and out to fancy restaurants. She makes me feel … so much. Alive and happy and miserable and horny. God, I'm turned on every minute I spend with her. I feel kind of like a puppy. Well, felt. Now I just feel like a whipping post. She's got someone else to wine and dine now. Some other leggy blond with square glasses. Clearly, she's got a type.”

“Clearly she IS a type,” Sam corrected. “You deserve better.” Sam said, a little wistfully.

Natalie caught the edge in Sam's voice and looked away. She sat on the log with her legs in front of her, poking at the water with a stick. She knew she couldn't give Sam a response that would make the scientist happy.

Sam cleared her throat and changed the subject. “Well, tell me where to find this Piper girl. Gotta give her her new toaster, you know.”

“Toaster?” Natalie asked, blankly.

“Ah, I see. Well, clearly you need more information about your new lifestyle. Information on such things abounds, my dear, and I know how much you love research.” She stuck her tongue out at her less-than-studious friend. “How about we go back to campus, you take off that ridiculous park ranger attire, and we watch Bound or something.”

Bound ? Is that about S and M? Because I'm so not into that.”

Sam laughed, and led her newly-not-so-straight friend back to the car. Throwing her arm around Natalie, she informed her, “first off, there's a lot you need to learn about the significance of U-Hauls.”

June 2008

Music blared into Sam's ears from her iPod headphones. She'd created a playlist of angry music filled with driving baselines, more screaming than singing, and wailing electric guitars. She'd put Eva to bed an hour earlier, then dusted and scrubbed the house more or less clean, and now she paced the house restlessly while Rage Against the Machine pounded in her head. She couldn't leave the house for fear her mother would wake up and need her, but the isolation had become too much to bear and Sam desperately needed to hear voices. She smirked a bit at herself. She'd always figured she was an early bloomer, but it would appear her Angst Period hit almost a decade after most teenagers experience it.

So it was that repeated knocks on the door went unheard. After numerous attempts, Dolores got fed up and simply entered the house uninvited. She marched up to Sam, who was dancing with her back to the front door, and tapped her soundly on the shoulder.

Sam jumped about five feet in the air. Spinning around, her eyes lighted on her neighbor and she threw her hand on her heart, trying to still her rapid breathing.

Dolores reached out and removed the ear buds, shocked at the profanity she could clearly hear blaring from them. “Do you want to go as deaf as me, Samantha?” she inquired, quite sincerely.

“So – sorry,” Sam puffed, still gasping. “Are you” – cough, gasp, cough – “thirsty?”

“I'll help myself. Please, sit down. You'll feel better.” And with that, Dolores strode into the kitchen and poured two glasses of milk. Returning to the family room, she thrust one into Sam's hands before plopping down on the couch next to her.

“How is she today?”

Finally able to take normal breaths, Sam replied, “pretty good, actually. We got through a bunch of flashcards this morning, and her recall is getting faster. I moved onto some photos from my childhood, and she actually seemed to remember a number of them – the situations in which they were taken, who took them, who was in them, that kind of thing.”

Dolores nodded. “That's good progress. She'll come back to us yet.”

Sam thought hard about that. It was the “us” that struck her. She appreciated, maybe for the first time, that Eva had touched more lives than just her own. She generally considered her mother reclusive, and perhaps she was, but she was still a member of a small community of people who cared for one another.

As if reading her thoughts, Dolores elaborated on her past interactions with Eva. “You know, since your father left she and I would drink coffee together more mornings than not. We gossiped, or talked politics. We chatted about you a lot, Dearie.” The older woman placed her hand on Sam's knee. “She loves you very much, you know.”

They sat in companionable silence for a bit, until Dolores said wistfully, “whenever I went to visit my sister in Amherst, your mother would water my plants. Once, I got up the courage to ask her to draw me. I still have the sketch in my bedroom. I never got around to framing it.”

Barely audible, the two women on the couch heard a raspy “Samantha?” from Eva's bedroom. As Sam rose to attend to her mother, Dolores stopped her with a hand on her arm. She struggled a bit to stand, but once she did she turned squarely to her much taller, much younger neighbor. “You let me help you now.” Sam nodded.

The shades and curtains were drawn in Eva's room, and the air was still. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust. After a few blinks, they were both shocked to see Eva perched on the side of her bed, her legs dangling.

Her daughter rushed to her side. “Mom! You're sitting up!”

So softly they had to strain to hear, Eva responded with, “why wouldn't I be up?”

“You – ” Sam stopped, and Dolores shook her head. Sam had told Eva once before what had happened, but her mother seemed to stop listening in the middle of the story, and all memory of the event seemed to elude her, perhaps because of some self-defense mechanism of the brain.

Eva fumbled a bit to grab her daughter's arm, but then clasped it with surprising strength. “Please help me stand, sweetie,” she whispered.

Eyes wide, Sam hurried to comply with her mom's request. She slipped one hand under her mom's arm and Dolores did the same from the other side. Together they steadied Eva, who scooted closer to the edge of the bed, placed her feet solidly on the floor, and then stood on wobbly legs. She swayed a bit.

“Mom? Are you alright?”

“Dizzy,” Eva murmured.

“Now what?” Sam mouthed to Dolores, who shrugged a bit. The threesome stood, together, Eva leaning heavily on her two supporters. She inhaled heavily and managed to stand up straighter. A few gentle pops of her spine accompanied her new posture, and she exhaled shakily. She maintained her new position for only a moment, and then began to slump down, her atrophied muscles trembling.

“Mom?” Sam asked gently.

“Sit. Down.” And so they did. But Eva continued to sit upright, without the help of Sam or Dolores.

“Mom, did you see who came to visit you?”

A small smile flitted across her mother's face. “Hello, Dolores. Is it time for our coffee?” A small twinkle sparkled in Eva's eyes.

And Sam was filled with hope.

Fall 2005

Any hope Natalie's revelation might have sparked in Sam faded as spring eased into summer, which gave way to fall, and still Natalie played the field, only now representatives from both teams joined her list of conquests. When junior year began, Natalie once again switched majors, this time from comparative literature to philosophy. She still went out of her way to invite her reticent friend to social events, gently steering her away from the lab at least once a weekend for a party, movie night, or even just a drink in Natalie's room. Sam cherished their closeness and the ease with which she could reveal her fears and plans to Natalie. She only wished she could be content with what they had. Every now and then the frustration got the better of her and she distanced herself from those beautiful legs, lips that pouted perfectly, eyes that read too easily Sam's heart. In those moments, Natalie respected Sam's need for space, and the friends avoided each other for a few weeks. Inevitably they gravitated toward each other again, the respite only serving to deepen their need for one another.

So when Eva encouraged Sam to bring Natalie home for Thanksgiving that year, it was with only a hint of misgiving that Sam agreed. They sang show tunes the entire drive until they got into a debate about the commercialization of Broadway and switched to contemporary pop. Eva greeted her guest warmly, insisting on hugs rather than handshakes, which made the Californian feel right at home. Natalie slotted into their kitchen routine seamlessly, and the three women enjoyed light banter throughout dinner and the dishes. Eva and Natalie talked shop about art and Sam kept up for a while before suggesting her mother give Natalie a tour of the garage cum artist studio. Sam hung back, drinking a glass of wine in the doorway while she silently observed the happy companionship the two artists shared. She marveled once again how effortlessly Natalie fit into her life, as if it had always been, and she wondered why Natalie didn't see it. Green eyes, so like her own, unexpectedly found hers, and in the soft smile they shared Sam suddenly realized that Natalie did, in fact, see it. So why was something missing?

For her part, Eva merely noted the glances the two young women exchanged and worried.

September 2006

“Hey Mom, got a sec?”

Sam had been studying her mom from her usual position in the doorway between the garage and the kitchen, summoning the courage to have The Talk. She'd been home for two weeks now at the conclusion of yet another summer spent researching with Dr. West. Somehow the right moment for a heart-to-heart had failed to present itself. She would return to school tomorrow for senior year, back to the lab to begin writing up the data from her summer experiments. As the afternoon had worn on, she forced herself to admit that even though she likely wouldn't be home again until Thanksgiving, the gulf widening between her and her mother had as much to do with emotional distance as geographical. She was an adult now, and she knew some things about her weren't going to change. It was time to stop hiding, telling half-truths, and holding her mom at arm's length. Her parents had always been open-minded, preaching acceptance for everyone except those who failed to accept difference. But she was wise enough to know that embracing difference in your own family was a far greater challenge than when the person in question was someone else's kid.

Eva looked up from her sewing machine, a seam ripper between her teeth, her readers perched precariously on the tip of her nose. Sam always thought she looked like a librarian peering over her glasses with her brow slightly furrowed, as it was whenever she was interrupted.

She deposited the seam ripper onto the tabletop of her workspace and swiveled in her chair so she was facing her tall daughter. “Sure, babe. Hey, what do you think so far?” She swept her hand over the quilt she'd been working on. The squares held images of birds native to Vermont, some perched on tree branches, others on feeders or even outstretched forearms.

“It's nice. How do you pick the order?” Sam asked, genuinely curious. She couldn't detect a pattern, but the arrangement of colors and shapes was pleasing.

Eva's eyebrows rose in surprise. “Oh, I just eyeball it. I lay the squares out before I begin sewing, and move things here and there until I get an overall composition I like. Art definitely imitates life in the trial-and-error department.” After a slight pause, she cocked her head at her daughter. “You're stalling. You never ask about my art.”

Sam hung her head a little as a twinge of guilt tugged at her. “Well, it just so happens I was stalling. But I am interested! I'm sorry you don't know that.”

The redhead removed her glasses and gazed thoughtfully at the woman before her. She noticed more maturity in the green eyes that shifted nervously under her scrutiny. “I believe you are. Now. What is it you came here not to talk about? Sit.”

Sam shook her head, preferring to stand in case she needed to make a quick getaway. She squared her shoulders and steeled herself for the worst. Calling forth all her courage, she opened her mouth to confess to her mom that she was drawn to women and not men. When no sound was forthcoming, she closed it again and rubbed her eyes with her palms.

“Well, as far as I know there are only two things in your life that could inspire such trepidation, and I doubt you're worried about confessing problems in the lab. What's up with Natalie?”

Sam's head snapped up in shock. She stammered, “why … um, why do you ask?”

“Oh please, dear, do you think I'm as blind as that Dolores is getting? Look, I think she's a lovely girl, but she's quite the lost soul. Not that you asked my advice, but I wouldn't waste time waiting around for her to wake up and smell the scientist.”

Sam didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and her mother leaned back in her chair as she watched the conflicting emotions war across her daughter's face.

“I think I will sit down after all,” Sam mumbled, stiffly dropping onto a nearby stool.

“I mean it, Samantha. I think very highly of her, and I appreciate that she takes care of you.” The older woman leaned forward, covering her daughter's hands with her own. “But that doesn't mean she's the only pretty girl who will ever capture your heart. The next one might actually know what to do with it, and how to return the gift.”

Sam swallowed, willing the moisture in her eyes not to escape her lashes and wend its way down her cheek.

“By all means, bring her home for Thanksgiving again if you are up for that. But darling, keep your eyes open for what else is out there.” She eased her hand under the younger woman's chin and held her still. “Heartbreaks are lessons. Love comes in all forms, you know. She loves you, but if it's not enough for you, if it comes to that, you might need to have the strength to walk away.”

Sam, having lost her battle against the disobedient tear, could only nod. Eva rose and wrapped her arms around her only child, who was quickly losing her composure. Burying her face against her mother's blouse, Sam felt her chest and throat constrict. The headache that always accompanied bouts of sobs slowly made its way to the back of her eyes, pushing further liquid out and scrambling her thoughts until all she could do was gasp and weep and cling to the soft gingham her mother wore.

Eva's heart broke as she offered a mother's comfort, stroking the long back of her tall daughter, kissing the top of her head, whispering gentle words of support into her hair. “It doesn't matter to me or your father that you're a lesbian, darling. We've known forever. We've just been waiting for you to be comfortable enough to talk with us about your life.”

Long moments passed with Eva continuing to voice her love and concern for her as Sam's emotions wracked her aching body and seared down her jaw and chin. When finally her shoulders stopped heaving, Sam exhaled shakily. She wished she could shake the heaviness from her shoulders, her chest, her eyes, but she knew it had settled there and would be her companion for the remainder of the day. Trying to lighten the mood, for both of them, she inquired, “did you by any chance get the license plate of the Mack truck that ran me over, Ma?”

“Oh, baby. I hate seeing you hurting.”

The scientist raised her head, and smiled wanly. “Funny, I feel the same way about you.”

“I know you do.” Sad blue eyes met sad green ones, and the connection that had eroded slowly since Sam left for college sparked again. Eva repeated, “I know you do. Hey, I don't think either of us is up for cooking dinner. You want to go out? There's a new restaurant I think you'd like.”

Sam wrinkled her nose at the thought. “A new restaurant? What kind?”

“It's called Stowe Away – how cute is that? The owner's this lovely young woman –“

“Can we just order a pizza and watch something horribly saccharine and sentimental? I don't have the energy for a public appearance.”

“Papa John's and Terms of Endearment it is.” Arms around each other's waist, mother and daughter retired to the family room couch, which would be their sanctuary for the remainder of the day.

**

Sam awoke to the smell of coffee and something sweet. Rubbing the bridge of her nose, she sat up, disoriented, and blinked until her eyes focused. The previous day's encounter with her mother came back to her and she realized she must have fallen asleep with her head on Eva's lap during the Steel Magnolias part of their triple feature. Her glasses rested, neatly folded, on top of the DVD case for Little Women . Donning her specs, she made her way into the kitchen to discover her mother reading the paper, two cups of coffee in front of her next to a plate with two slices of frittata and two donuts.

“Hungry?”

Sam's stomach rumbled in response and she eased into a chair across the table from her mom. “Guess so. You went out?”

“I picked up some goodies from Stowe Away. It really is a delightful place – maybe we can go next time you're home.” Eva slid a fork over to her daughter and as she savored the taste of delicious coffee and frittata Eva updated her on some of the news from the paper as well as general gossip from around town. After conspiratorially whispering that she thought their neighbor Dolores might be secretly dating someone, she closed the paper, removed her readers, and leaned back in her chair.

“Sam, I'd like us to talk about some things before you hit the road.”

The aforementioned fork clanked loudly against the plate as Sam dropped it. Swallowing hard, she prepared for the worst.

“Relax there, Antsy, you know I don't bite. But we need to talk about what's next for you. I know you want to go to graduate school.”

Unprepared for this discussion, and uncertain where Eva would want to take it, Sam warily nodded. “My advisor thinks I should go for an M.D./Ph.D. somewhere, so I can do research but still have clout in the medical community.”

Eva's expression indicated she'd expected this. “I've been researching programs. Stanford's is cutting edge, you know, and the institution really pours resources into the sciences. Plus I think you'd benefit from a different environment.”

“Mom –” Sam began before her mother held up a hand, silencing her.

“Samantha, I'm fine. I've been pretty stable for a while now. I've been taking my medicine, and I'm able to focus on my art, which in turn centers me. It's a healthy cycle. I'll not have you staying nearby to take care of me. Trust me – that would only make me more depressed than I already am.”

“But what if –”

Eva cut her off. “Samantha, don't even say it. I'm trying very hard, and it's important for me that you believe in me. If you were to remain nearby out of concern for my well-being, it would feel as though you doubted me.”

Sam tried to find an angle to argue, but failed. She gently took her mother's hands into her own. “I believe in you, Mom. I really do.”

“If you want to apply to programs nearby, just because you like the programs, then by all means do so. At this point, I want you to cast a wide net and keep your options open. Once you're accepted, we can sit down again and discuss the logistics before you decide.”

And so, for the second time in as many days, Eva stunned Sam with her forthrightness and support. “This means a lot to me, Mom,” she said, hoping the squeeze she gave the elegant fingers in her hand would help communicate how sincerely she meant what she said.

“It means a lot to me, too. You know, I'm very proud of you. You have a lot of gifts to give this world – and you don't need to spend them all taking care of your old Mom.”

Relief flooded through Sam. She hadn't realized until that moment just how anxious and frustrated she had felt about limiting her application process. There would be more discussions, she knew, but for now at least she felt no guilt about applying to Stanford, and anywhere else she wanted. Feeling lighter than she had in months, Sam packed up the car and loaded the CD player with Stevie Wonder. All her preparations having been made, she turned toward the woman who had renewed her confidence and relieved her of her fears. They hugged for a long time before Sam slid into her car and closed the door. She rolled down the window and called out “I love you” as she backed down the drive.

 

February 2007

Natalie sat on the floor of her room and groaned, leaning back against the side of her bed. Her head was still slowly pulsating from her hangover. “Thanks, Sam. Your hands are amazing.”

“My mom trained me well. She carries all her tension in her shoulders. Like you.”

The women were quiet while Sam, seated on the bed above Natalie, continued to work out the knots on Natalie's left side. Natalie was clearly sporting the “hungover” look, engulfed by her high school gym shirt, which was two sizes too big and bore “Romano” in ironed-on letters on the back, and her favorite jeans.

“Did you have fun last night?” Sam's velvety voice vibrated against the back of Natalie's neck and Natalie sighed.

“Yeah, too much. Claire was a great date. It's been a while since I went to a dance with a friend. No pressure, you know? No awkwardness. I wish she had stayed longer, though. Maybe then I wouldn't have had so many drinks.” Sam was glad that although Natalie had moved to a single after freshman year, she and her former roommate remained close friends. Claire was stable and studious and, Sam hoped, a good influence on their capricious friend.

Sounds from students laughing, heading to dinner, drifted into the dorm room from its corner windows. The shades were drawn, blocking out the cold and the world that had been too bright for Natalie's hangover. The low light from a lamp on the desk across the room played softly on Natalie's neck. Sam watched as a vein pulsated there, and reminded herself to keep her hands moving.

“Why did you drink so much?” Natalie didn't answer right away, and Roisin Murphy coming from the computer speakers on Natalie's desk filled the void.

“I don't know. Why do I ever drink so much? I'm in college. Tis the time. Maybe you should drink more.”

Sam swallowed. “I drink. Just not as much as you.”

“Yes, Sam, Dear, you're always so responsible.” After a pause, she continued thoughtfully. “I think I kissed a couple of people last night.”

“Only a couple? Must be slipping.”

“Ha, ha, Smarty Pants. At least I didn't go home with anyone.”

“Someone came home with you, Natalie.” Sam had wondered if she should tell her promiscuous friend, but the opening was there and the words slipped out unbidden.

Natalie turned around, surprised. “What?”

“Robin must have followed you home. I found him passed out in front of your door.”

“What the hell are you talking about?!” Natalie's brows furrowed as she looked away.

“I came by in the middle of the night to make sure you weren't sleeping on your back, and I found him slumped against your door. You know he's in love with you.”

“No,” Natalie responded softly. “No, I didn't know. Wow, how'd I miss that one? I'm usually pretty good about picking up on that sort of thing.”

Sam resumed massaging Natalie's tension away. “I woke him up and helped him home.”

“Thanks, Sam.” Natalie sighed again. She never would have hooked up with Robin a month ago had she known. She had enjoyed herself that night, seducing him away from his own frat party for a quickie against a wall in his bedroom. She thought it was casual fun for both of them. She chided herself for her insensitivity, thinking not for the first time that she needed to pull herself together.

Sam sighed, too. She'd watched her friend break many hearts over their three and a half years of college, and she wondered why the beautiful woman between her legs continued to seek validation through casual sexual encounters. She shook her head slightly, knowing that the parade of men and women who moved through Natalie's caresses cost the blond musician something, whether or not she realized it now.

“So you were here last night?”

Stiffening, Sam realized she had been caught. “Yeah, well. Claire called me and told me how drunk you were. I didn't want you to fall asleep on your back. You might have thrown up and choked.”

“Oh. I didn't even know that was a thing.”

“I rolled you onto your side.”

“You're very sweet, Sam. You take good care of me.”

The women sat, each lost in her own thoughts, as Sam's hands absently drifted lower down Natalie's back. Natalie felt her breath catch. This happened to her every now and then when Sam touched her. Her muscles would tingle, and all the heat from her body would leave her veins and flood her skin. She recognized the feeling as a physical response to attraction, but puzzled over why her dear friend would inspire this reaction. She loved Sam deeply, cherishing their friendship and in her own way she took care of the shy brunette. Natalie was no fool, and while she had observed Sam engage with a couple of relationships that never really went anywhere, it was clear to the blond that her best friend was in love with her.

Natalie had always understood being in love as an equation: love + attraction = in love. As Sam's strong fingers glided still lower, tracing circles just above the top of Natalie's jeans, she felt the blood in her face drain. Little shivers tickled their way down her skin. She wasn't in love with Sam, but she loved her with a force that sometimes took her aback, and it would appear she was attracted to her quiet friend. She had assumed over the years that the tingling she felt when Sam touched her came wholly from her friend, and she was simply so attuned to the scientist that she internalized Sam's bodily responses to their contact. As knowing fingers rubbed her lower back, a wave of heat washed over her, she suddenly appreciated that this line of thinking was horribly naïve.

“I've been thinking about returning to Tai Chi. I used to do it every day in high school. I was in good shape, and I felt centered.” Sam continued to fill the silence by discussing the attributes of her slow-moving routine, trying to distract herself from the taut body she could swear was responding to her touch. Over the years, she had memorized every curve, every muscle of the musician's body, watching with ever wider eyes as breasts filled out, and muscles grew more toned from hours of dancing on tables at bars and athletic sex. Those muscles whose structure she had long ago committed to memory tightened and trembled slightly, and Sam felt her pulse quicken.

Natalie's defenses were down. She'd spent the day hung over, barely eating. She was shaken by failing to notice Robin's feelings for her, and she blinked a few times as she realized it had been a dozen sexual liaisons since she had kissed someone she actually cared about. Why was she so willing to settle? She thought about the woman behind her. They had known each other for almost four years, and she had seen the hurt in Sam's eyes as Natalie admitted she was attracted to women as well as men, and then proceeded to give her body over to a series of students who weren't Sam. Throughout it all, Sam had been there, offering love and devotion. As Sam's hands moved outward, then up Natalie's sides, something inside Natalie broke.

Whatever she had been holding in, out of respect for their friendship and what she was knew was an inequality of feeling, exploded. She whipped around and grabbed Sam's face, pulling the startled woman's mouth to hers, kissing her hard. Shocked at how good her best friend's lips tasted as they claimed her right back, Natalie crawled up to the bed, pushing Sam down onto her back and following her down without breaking contact. Sam could feel Natalie's heart beating hard against her own, their chests heaving together as they fought for breath, unwilling to relinquish one another. After long, breathless moments of kissing, Sam fought for freedom. As her hands came up to push her friend away and her head pulled back against the bed, Natalie grunted and grabbed Sam's wrists, forcing them over her head and pinning her. Raising her head, Natalie finally looked into her friend's deep green eyes, desire etched across her face. A long moment passed as Sam recognized the lust and need in her own eyes was mirrored by Natalie's. Good sense abandoned both women as desire washed over them and they dove for each other's mouths. Tongues danced and their moans vibrated together. Again, Sam tried to raise her arms to the woman on top of her. Playfully this time, Natalie denied her once more and moved her mouth across Sam's jaw and down to her neck, kissing, nipping, and licking. Shifting slightly to press her thigh against Sam's center, Natalie bit her own lip as she watched Sam arch back and press against Natalie's muscled leg. As Sam started to rock her hips against the woman she'd craved for years, Natalie pulled up and whipped off her shirt, kneeling on the bed above her prone prey. Natalie released her bra and slid it off, and she heard Sam's breath catch. She ran her hands up and down her own abdomen for a second, enjoying the unguarded look of desire on Sam's face. Torturing her for only a minute, Natalie reached down to remove Sam's shirt. Sam sat up into her, kissing between her breasts as she unhooked and discarded Sam's bra. Natalie licked her own lips when she saw firm, high breasts and a completely flat stomach. The scientist always wore so many layers of baggy shirts, Natalie had never been able to guess what she might look like underneath.

In fact, she realized before coherent thought left her that she was surprised not to have encountered any resistance in unclothing her modest, shy friend. As Sam's fingers spread across her stomach and moved slowly upward, toward her breasts, Natalie's mind emptied and she choked back a growl. Possessive and practiced hands massaged her breasts from underneath, working closer and closer to the center. Her breath quickening, Natalie turned pleading eyes on the woman below her, who smiled knowingly and held her gaze as her thumbs brushed softly across pink centers. The intensity of Sam's eyes as she drew out hardened nipples filled Natalie's mouth with a bittersweet taste, and she knew she was wet. Sam's eyes never left Natalie's as she lowered her head and closed her lips around Natalie's nipple. Although the warmth and wetness and nimble fingers were on her breasts, Natalie felt their impact between her legs. Sam unbuttoned Natalie's jeans, and slowly slid the zipper down, her mouth still on the blonde's chest.

Natalie stayed Sam's hand, pushing her back to the bed and resting her whole weight on top of her long body. She began to devour Sam's neck and her fingers slipped between the waistband of Sam's panties and her overheated skin. They warred for dominance, tearing off clothing, rolling over and over each other, touching, stroking, grabbing, thrusting. When they finally stopped teasing each other, Natalie came first, hard and fast, feeling for all her sexual experience like a young schoolboy. She barely had the strength left to bring Sam over the edge, but when afterwards she settled on top of Sam, panting, and Sam asked for more, Natalie was on fire again.

**

They alternated napping and romping all evening and into the night. They left the bed only to stumble over to Sam's mini-fridge or pantry.

“God, you're good in bed,” Natalie whispered into Sam's ear, her slick body, drenched in sweat, completely covering the brunette's. “Why didn't we do this a long time ago?”

Sam laughed, the vibrations moving Natalie's lithe body up and down. “I didn't think you wanted to.”

“Well, we both know I'm not the smart one in this relationship.” She propped herself up on her elbows and gazed down at green eyes, creamy skin, full lips, strongly curved jaw, hairline, eyelashes, cheekbones, adorable nose. “You're beautiful.”

“I'm not, but you are,” Sam returned.

“Stop it. I'm the one looking at you. I see your face more than you do, and I say you're beautiful.” Natalie began to kiss all over Sam's skeptical face, repeating specific compliments about the scientist's features.

Sam stilled her, placing a hand on either side of Natalie's face and pulling her head away to peer into green eyes just a shade browner than her own. “I love you,” she said simply.

“I know you do. I've known forever, you know.”

Brushing blond wisps of hair aside, Sam cocked her head and gave voice to what she'd been wondering since Natalie's lips had found her own hours ago. “What does this mean?”

“Do I have to know right now?”

Sam swallowed her disappointment and shook her head, not trusting her voice.

Natalie slid off Sam a little and rested her head on Sam's shoulder. Sam traced little circles on her back as the air, thick with their lovemaking, and their muscles, exhausted with the alternation of tension and release, weighed heavily on them, sending them into a deep sleep.

**

The sheets were green instead of white, and smelled of mountain air rather than Downy. The pillow was a little too fluffy. Running heavy fingers, awkward with sleep, across her eyes, Sam fought to wake up. The smell of sex clung to the skin of her hand and her eyes flew open as memories of the previous night flooded through her. She bolted upright, then, glancing around the room, slumped back down onto the bed. She was alone. The clock on Natalie's nightstand read 9:40am. She felt the sheets and pillows around her, but found no warmth other than her own.

Natalie never spent the night with anyone, and Sam snorted derisively when she decided she ought to feel grateful she wasn't sent home in the middle of the night. She pulled her clothes on slowly, trying to work out the kinks in her overtaxed muscles, grateful for the fabric that seemed to mask some of the shame she felt at being abandoned after a night that to her had felt so unbelievably beautiful, so perfect. Taking one last glance around the room, she confirmed that the woman who had touched her and held her mere hours ago had left no note. She slung her messenger bag over her shoulder and dragged the door open, stepping out into the garish sunlight, trying not to think about what they'd done, to wonder what would happen now, to feel anything.

**

They were both headed to the Bay Area in the fall, Sam to the MD/PhD program at Stanford and Natalie to an MA in Public Policy program at Berkeley. They had planned on living together, or at least near one another, in San Francisco. They'd decided on these two programs in part because their proximity meant continued nightly forages for snacks, weekend piano lessons, and catch in the street during football season. It meant they wouldn't have to say goodbye. Although they'd known each other for less than four years, it was inconceivable to both women that they might plan their futures without taking the other into account.

But now everything had changed. Neither woman attempted to contact the other, but they ran into each other in front of the library the next day, Natalie floored to see Sam out of the lab and Sam shocked to learn Natalie even knew where the library was. They walked up to each other and then both proceeded to look anywhere but at the woman who, just a day before, had come so beautifully in her arms.

At the same time, they each said the other's name, and then stopped.

Finally, Sam spoke in earnest. “This is stupid. You obviously think that we made a mistake, so why don't you just say it and we can try to figure out where we go from here.” She couldn't keep the harshness from her voice and her face burned with embarrassment and anger.

Natalie cleared her throat, then stumbled over her reply. “I don't. Think it was a mistake.”

Their eyes met briefly as Sam incredulously asked, “what? You don't think it was a mistake?”

“Yes. No. I don't know. Obviously you're upset – you never ask a question with a negative in it; it's impossible to reply to.” Relieved to have something other than the content of their conversation to focus on, Natalie continued her meta-commentary. “I can't even begin to think how I would embed that preposition within my sentence.”

Sam, however, was in no mood for semantics. She felt overwhelmingly foolish having this conversation in such a public location, but her feet were rooted to their spot on the sidewalk and she feared she might not get another chance to hash this out. “Look at me. Dammit it, Natalie, You know I'm in love with you. Don't fuck with me.” She was proud she managed to get the expletive out without stammering or faltering.

Natalie ran her hands through her hair, discomfort written all over her face. “Can we talk about this somewhere else?”

“No, I don't think we can. If I let you go, you'll just run. So we're staying here until you talk.” To emphasize her stance, Sam unceremoniously dropped her bag to the ground and crossed her arms.

Natalie slumped a bit. “Fine. I don't know what this means. I love you, Sam. But you know I don't do relationships. Part of me thinks I should try one with you, but I'm also terrified of losing your friendship.”

Sam growled, disgusted. “‘Terrified of losing my friendship?' That's what teenagers in high school say when they really just mean ‘I'm not interested.' You're blowing me off with that?”

“I fucking mean it, Sam. You're my best friend. What I have with you, it's the most important thing in my life. I just . . . god, can I just have some more time to think about all this?”

Natalie looked like she might cry, and Sam hated herself a little for the feelings of compassion that surged through her whenever Natalie was distraught. She had to get out of there before she reached for Natalie, or slapped her, or broke down herself. “Fine. Two weeks,” she blurted out before snatching up her bag, spinning around, and fleeing away from the library, the books she needed completely forgotten. Natalie chased after her, grabbed her roughly by the shoulders and forced her to turn around. She put both hands on Sam's face and brought their mouths together roughly. Pulling away, she looked deep into confused green eyes. “I do love you, Samantha. Two weeks.” With that, she turned and walked away.

And so for Sam, the next two weeks were marked by moments of overwhelming pleasure, especially when Sam relived the passion they had shared together during that one magical night, mixed with acute doubt and nervousness when she imagined being finally, thoroughly rejected. The sex had been incredible, and when the taste and feel of Natalie surged through her memory she had to remind herself not to act the part of girlfriend, trying to woo a yes from Natalie. She refrained from sending her flowers. She picked up an adorable stuffed otter from the shelf of a bookstore, only to return it to its home between similar animals. She bit back invitations to dine at the fancy French restaurant she'd always wanted to escort Natalie to. She fervently hoped she was doing the right thing by allowing Natalie the space to make this decision.

When finally the conversation came, it devastated Sam. She could feel Natalie's genuine concern for her, which made the refusal even harder to bear. It took Sam two months before she could speak to Natalie again. Their friendship resumed as it had always been, except perhaps every now and again moments of extreme bitterness on Sam's part infiltrated their interactions.

Sam thought back to her mother's words about Natalie, which she appreciated now in a way she hadn't imagined when Eva first delivered them. Still, she found it impossible to walk away from Natalie, choosing to accept whatever part of her Natalie was willing to give.

October 2007

“So what are you doing this weekend?”

“Oh, um. I don't know. I don't really have any plans.”

“We should have dinner then.”

Sam wasn't sure how to take this invitation from the tall Sicilian woman in her medical school cohort. They'd spoken a couple of times about classes, or why they both preferred living in San Francisco and dealing with the commute to living in Palo Alto.

Sam knew Natalie was casually dating a couple of people from her program and a bartender she'd met at The Lex, a lesbian bar in the Mission. Sam further knew that she should also start dating, or she'd go crazy sitting alone waiting for Natalie to figure herself out. She pondered the tall beauty standing in front of her. Long legs that went on forever, slim hips, dark hair that fell between her shoulder blades, coffee brown eyes, chiseled cheekbones that could look harsh if Angela weren't almost always smiling. Although Sam had dated older women before, she had never been with someone taller than her. Deciding it didn't matter if the invitation constituted a date or not, Sam accepted.

After trying on four different combinations of pants and tops, Sam settled on charcoal gray slacks and a black-and-white button down shirt. It wasn't flashy, but she knew it was an improvement over her former attire. Being refused by Natalie had inspired Sam to reassess parts of her life, and she had embarked on a makeover, calling her father for funds and her mother for her artistic eye. Eva happily accompanied her on a massive shopping spree. Unlike her indecisive friend, when Sam decided it was time to acquire a sense of style she simply picked one and embraced it thoroughly. She discarded long-loved tee shirts and formless denim, filling her closet instead with designer jeans, button-down shirts, dress slacks, and sweaters ranging from lightweight cotton to cashmere to turtlenecks. The pieces were basic, reflecting simple yet professional taste. A new wardrobe acquired, she turned her attention to the salon, requesting the stylist cut raven locks that had fallen to the middle of her back into shoulder-length layers that framed her face, softening the angles of her jaw and warming her green eyes.

She wondered briefly if Angela would have given her a second look had she attended med school in her previous clothes. It did seem that women not named Natalie Romano noticed her more now that she put some effort into her appearance. Natalie never said a word about Sam's new look.

Angela had picked the restaurant and instructed Sam to meet her there at 8:00pm. The tapas place had dark lighting and “martinis that will make you talk funny,” according to Angela. Sam arrived first and somehow felt it had been planned that way. When Angela entered seven minutes later, she drew the gaze of men and women alike. Her black cocktail dress fell to just above her knees and swished appealingly as her endless legs strode over to the booth Sam occupied. She leaned over and lightly kissed the waiting woman's cheek by way of greeting. The two ordered the aforementioned cocktail, Angela raising her eyebrows suggestively at Sam when she instructed the waiter to make hers “extra dirty.” They eased into comfortable conversation, sharing stories from their younger days and talking shop. Before long, Sam realized that Angela was gently guiding the exchange, and Sam enjoyed playing passenger to whatever drive this beautiful, assertive woman wanted to take her on. Sam adored the accent, and found herself fascinated by the way Angela's lips formed words. It was different from how Americans formed words. Unlike the lazy way most people in this country talked, Angela's lips seemed to have more muscles. She was pleased with her ability to follow Angela's conversation while simultaneously pondering the possibilities. She was quickly deciding that this was in fact a date, and that she was glad.

When dinner was over they wandered to a bar a few blocks away and settled in for more martinis. At the end of the night, Angela linked her arm through Sam's and managed to make “walk me home” sound like both a question and an order. When they reached a light blue Victorian, Angela stopped and informed Sam, “this is me.” They lingered on the sidewalk a little making idle comments about the neighborhood before Angela's fascinating lips moved around the words “I had a nice time tonight.”

“As did I.”

“Then let's do it again sometime.” Sam enjoyed how forward Angela was with her and she wondered if it would be the same in the bedroom.

“I'd like that.” After a small pause, Sam proposed they see a movie at the Castro next week. When Angela agreed, Sam said, “until then, fair lady. Au revoir.” Leaning in, she lightly placed her lips on the taller woman's cheek. As she pulled away, she felt hands slide up her neck and into her hair, pulling her face back in. Soft lips captured hers. Sam's hands went to Angela's hips, pulling her closer. Their bodies and tongues met, and soon both women were moaning softly into each other. Sam's hands slid up Angela's back, and the taller woman's eased down to Sam's hips, and then lower. As their tongues flicked and caressed, Sam began to ache and her breath became ragged. She reached up, clutching Angela's strong shoulders as her knees grew weaker and she began to sway a little. God, those lips were so soft, and it felt divine to be engulfed in someone else's body for once. Sam realized she enjoyed leaning upwards to kiss, rather than the other way around. She knew she wanted this woman – wanted to be at her mercy. She broke their kiss and, looking up into hooded eyes, huskily asked, “take me inside?”

She could feel Angela's heartbeat racing against her chest, and could see the desire etched all over the Sicilian woman's face. So she was totally taken aback when Angela shook her head. “Not on the first date, Sam.”

Sam swallowed, trying to calm her breathing. “Oh,” was all she could manage for a moment, thinking that Natalie never seemed to have this problem. She suddenly felt like a novice at a poker game, showing her cards before the table had finished betting. She pulled back a little farther until she could take in Angela's mussed hair and flushed cheeks. She could wait. Grabbing one of the hands still resting on her ass, Sam brought it to her lips and kissed Angela's knuckles. “I'll see you next week, then.”

Later that night, alone in her studio, Sam leaned against the wall and stared at her bed. She closed her eyes and imagined lying on her back with Angela poised over her. She pictured the darker woman's lips on her neck, her collarbone, her chest. She imagined Angela undressing both of them, then the feel of skin on skin as the taller woman's body covered her own. She unbuttoned and unzipped her pants, inching them down a bit. When the imaginary Angela began to ride her and bite her shoulder, Sam felt herself tense. Waves of orgasm washed over her as she fantasized that perfect, proper mouth crying “oh fuck” and Angela coming all over her.

It was the first time she'd fantasized about someone other than Natalie in years.

The reality was every bit as thrilling as her dreams. When on the third date Angela finally invited Samantha into her apartment, they didn't get past the front door before Sam was trembling in strong arms, long, elegant fingers stroking through her. Angela's pace was insistently, torturously slow. “Easy, Baby. I want to enjoy you. God, you're so fucking sexy.” Frustratingly slowly, the taller woman teased Sam, bringing her to the edge only to back off abruptly. Finally, when Angela's hot, wet lips whispered into her ear, “come for me, Baby,” Sam did just that.

When the tables turned, they didn't make it past the couch.

February 2008

Angela had informed Sam quite candidly that she wasn't interested in anything serious or monogamous, but that she would like to continue enjoying Sam's company and body if her new lover was comfortable with an informal arrangement. In keeping with Sam's first fantasy of Angela, their liaisons involved positions and later toys that were new to Sam. Angela broke through any inhibitions Sam might still have harbored about sex, freeing her to voice what she wanted and to take what she needed. Sometimes they played and frolicked and teased, sometimes they sweated and fucked, but they never made love.

When she wasn't distracted by school work or Angela, Sam's insides ached for Natalie. She was a smart girl, but Natalie confused the shit out of her. They clearly loved each other. They'd built a solid foundation of friendship and caring. They found one another desirable. The damn math just didn't add up, and it was obvious that there was some variable Sam couldn't seem to solve for.

Still, professionally speaking, Sam was happier than she'd ever been. She'd approached medical school with a wellspring of confidence nurtured during her successful tenure as an undergraduate. She was one of two students in her class to have already published her research, and she'd established a comfortable and engaging rapport with her professors. The students in her cohort were as dedicated and ambitious as she was, but she managed to stay above the toxic aura of competition and myopic hysteria that often pervades programs such as Stanford's.

When she wasn't in Palo Alto, or commuting to Palo Alto, she relished walking around her Mission neighborhood. She spent weekend afternoons in Dolores Park, alternating between studying her textbooks and studying the adorable dogs, the shirtless athletes, and the mustachioed hipsters that populated the grassy hills.

Every couple of weeks Sam and Natalie would drive up to Marin and embark on a four-hour hike around Mt. Tam, stopping off at the Tourist Club for a drink and a game of chess. Reachable only by hiking a couple of miles into the woods, the Tourist Club sported large decks on two levels which provided breath-taking views of the mountain and, on clear days, the Pacific. On the rare sunny afternoon, the decks were littered with sweatshirts and jackets, discarded top layers that hikers toted along in the likely event of fog and chilly breezes. Fully cognizant of Natalie's inability to plan ahead, Sam regularly shouldered a backpack with an extra fleece pullover, a second bottle of water, and two hair ties, and Natalie gratefully availed herself of the extra set more often than not. In return, Natalie always came stocked with chocolate confections.

Saturdays found them at farmers markets, which they were systematically visiting in the hopes of hitting up every single Bay Area market before their first year of school elapsed. They had started at the Civic Center, then moved onto the Ferry Building and the Alemany market in Bernal Heights. They weren't able to forage every weekend, but by the end of fall term they were already exploring Oakland's Lake Merritt and Temescal markets. The beginning of 2008 saw them moving onto Berkeley. They had already planned the following year's agenda: an exploration of all the taquerias the Bay Area offered, although they weren't sure they'd even be able to successfully make it through the Mission.

The City by the Bay was indeed a welcome change of environment for Samantha. The combination of crowded BART trains and chill attitudes, the mixture of urban chaos and natural beauty sometimes overwhelmed Sam's senses, and she understood Natalie in a way she never had before. The native San Franciscan had internalized the odd juxtapositions of an area that could simultaneously produce some of the world's best restaurants and wine, and Silicon Valley.

The drive down 280 to Palo Alto took Sam through heavy layers of fog in the morning, but the ancient trees and rolling hills that peaked through here and there often took her breath away and she found she relished her commute, a forty-five minute stretch of time given over to mentally preparing for class, pondering her future, or simply enjoying the music and the view. Med school life exhausted even the most indefatigable of students, but Sam happily traded a few hours of sleep for the pleasure of living in the city and a Saturday spent with Natalie. Sundays were given over entirely to work, as were most weekday evenings, with the occasional break for a night with Angela.

Every Sunday afternoon, after hours of pouring over textbooks and anatomy diagrams, Sam took a break and called her mother. Eva appeared to be getting on well, and had even completed two commissioned quilts for Stowe residents. She professed to be feeling more or less alright, and she claimed to be sleeping well. Unlike with most red-blooded Americans, winter agreed with her, and she even took a picture of a snowman she'd made and emailed it to her daughter, who admitted to missing Vermont blizzards and the hot chocolate and fires they inspired.

Sam's various dates with Angela took her to the roller derby, a Giants game, a cooking class, and Bourbon and Branch, a speak-easy which required a password to enter. She had dived into life in the Bay Area with the same vigor that defined her work ethic, and she wasn't sure, but she thought she just might be happy.

March 2008

Sam walked into her apartment and unceremoniously dumped her satchel and keys on the table just inside the door. She marched over to the fridge, grabbed a juice and threw it back. It had been a long day of studying cadavers, and she was looking forward to dropping into bed, pulling the comforter over her head, and blissfully ignoring the world for a few hours. She'd forgotten her cell at home, and as she started to rip open the envelopes that had been stuffed into her mailbox, she dialed her voicemail and put the cell on speakerphone. The first message was from Claire, who had moved into an apartment in North Beach with Dustin, their old Freshman Advisor, and was teaching at a grade school in Marin, asking if they could meet for coffee sometime soon to catch up. The two letters in her hand were credit card offers and she cursed the companies for killing so many trees. She dropped the Bed, Bath and Beyond coupon when the third message began and she heard an unfamiliar male voice. “Ms. Latham, I'm a nurse at Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington. I wanted to let you know that we've just admitted your mother into the E.R. It appears she's had a stroke. I don't have a lot of information just yet, but you are her ‘in case of emergency' contact. Please call the hospital at your earliest convenience.” Sam scrambled for a pen, trying to memorize the number as she searched for paper. “Why do people always say the phone number so fast? It's the most important information they leave in a message,” she muttered. Dialing with one hand, she opened her laptop and started searching for flights with the other.

 

**

Curled awkwardly on a waiting room chair, exhaustion finally overtaking her, Sam dreamed. Visions of blue scrubs and scans flitted before her, and a doctor who sounded as though he were speaking underwater kept saying “aneurysm” and “brain damage” over and over.

**

It was a neurological aneurysm, which the attending surgeon informed Sam Eva had been lucky to survive at all. The extent and effects of the brain damage would only be ascertained if she awoke from her coma, and even then thorough physical, occupational, speech, and psychological therapy would determine how much and how quickly she would recover.


The irony of the situation was not lost on Sam. Eva had tried half a dozen times to kill herself, and her daughter always assumed one day she would succeed. But it was her body, not her tortured mind, which actually ruined the fragile artist. Sam had always wanted to live without the fear of her mother committing suicide; the damage done to Eva's mind now, should she regain consciousness, would likely make additional suicide attempts beyond Eva's capacity.

The whir and hum of machines grated on Sam's nerves, and as did the fact that the hospital was air-conditioned when the high in Vermont this time of year was barely sixty. She paced, she read to her mom, and she tried in vain to write. She blamed the creative blockage she felt on hospital food.

Natalie called multiple times a day asking for updates and reassuring her devastated friend. On day four, during one such conversation, the dam broke and Sam's tears cascaded down her cheeks. For the rest of the day, she could only manage to stop them for brief, ten-minute intervals. She burned through an entire box of tissues and then some, and finally had to apply Chap-stick to the raw skin under and around her nose. When the hiccups started, she ran out to a liquor store and filled a flask with tequila. Two shots later her breathing normalized. On day five she got a hotel room and slept for twelve hours straight before returning to her post at her mother's bedside.

 

**

“So what do I have to do?”

“Well, there's the physical and emotional support you'll need to provide. I think it would behoove you to secure a nurse. Someone who can spend a few hours a day with your mother. Give you specific instructions on care. Help train you as your mother's needs evolve. Give you a break, time for you to go out and get some air and space. The physical therapy will be hard, and there will be times she'll resist it. She might become disoriented, especially in the morning and evening. Many people who have suffered the kind of damage she has sometimes act more aggressive. Anger issues.”

Sam found herself focusing on the old doctor's tendency to speak in incomplete sentences. It irritated her, and she vacillated between listening to his content and growing irrationally angry at his style of expression. His odd speech pattern gave her a target for the emotions that threatened to overwhelm her.

Dr. Kruse continued. “They get frustrated when they recognize their limitations. Tasks that used to come so easily … so hard now. A situation or person they used to remember with ease? Can't remember now. She'll have good days and bad days. You too. So, Samantha, can you commit to this? She'll need you in ways you can't anticipate or even imagine.”

“Yes, of course,” Sam mumbled, looking at her hands. She cleared her throat, and wiped a trickle of salty wetness from her left cheek. Raising her head and meeting the doctor's eyes, she repeated with conviction, “Yes. Of course, Dr. Kruse.”

Sam looked around at the bright yellow walls with their nondescript geometrical prints, probably purchased at Target. Plaid orange fabric covered the chairs in the waiting room, and a few fake plants occupied two corners. Four-year-old magazines offering dated fashion tips left little room on the square wooden table in front of Sam for her coffee cup. The warm colors of the room did little to cheer those who languished there, waiting for news.

Eva had been in the hospital for five weeks, the first of which was spent in a coma. When she finally awoke, she battled with pneumonia and other infections, and was unable to remain awake for any length of time. The feeding tube prevented her from speaking, but she lacked the skills to do so anyway. She communicated with nods or shakes of her head, and thumbs up signs, but was confused by any question more complicated than “are you hungry?” or “are you in pain?” She could move her arms and legs a little, but the strength to stand eluded her. In Week Two they took her off the ventilator, and in Week Four they removed the feeding tube. She had begun some light therapy, and was now able to speak with a thin, hesitant voice. The doctors were confident she would be able to walk again, but warned that it would take time for her to regain basic skills. Although no one said it aloud, it was clear Eva would be forever altered.

“Do you have help, Sam? Family nearby? Close friends? Doing this alone … it's too much for one person” the doctor gently informed the terrified woman.

“My dad will send money. I mean, he already has. I have an uncle in Boston who said he'd come up when he can. I've been gone for five years, so I don't really… I didn't really keep in touch with people here …” the prodigal daughter trailed off.

“Well, Samantha, my best advice is to get yourself a support system. People to help you when things get rough or when you need a break.”

“Thanks, Doctor, I'll do what I can.”

Sam rose from the uncomfortable chair and wiped her palms down the front of her jeans. She blinked a few times, willing her eyes to cooperate with her need to keep it together, and extended her hand to the grey-haired doctor. They shook briefly, and as Sam turned toward her mother's room, she felt a kindly hand on her shoulder. “You'll be alright,” he softly reassured her, and with that Sam walked down the hallway to collect her mother and bring her home.

 

Upon entering her mother's room, she discovered Eva sitting in a wheelchair, with a blanket across her lap, wearing a nightgown and a pair of sweatpants, slippers on her feet. Her head hung at an odd angle and her eyes were glassy. Her hands clutched a stuffed elephant Sam had picked up from the hospital gift store.

Sam kneeled down in front of her and put her hands over Eva's. “Hi, Mom,” she whispered.

“Samantha?” Eva's blue eyes suddenly became clear and they bore into Sam's green ones with anger. Jerking her hands away, she spat out with a wavering voice, “I thought you had left me in this place to die.”

The sensitive scientist felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. “You – you thought – why on earth would you think that?” she stuttered.

“You don't love me anymore. You were gone so long,” Eva scolded her only child. The effort cost her all her breath, and she broke out into a coughing fit.

Once she had stilled, Sam attempted to respond to her accusation. “Mom, I was gone for thirty minutes, and I was just around the corner talking with the doctor.” Sam touched a cold cheek, trying to reassure the disoriented woman, although she wasn't sure if Eva were reprimanding her for the immediate past, or the previous five years during which Sam's visits home were few and brief.

Eva turned her face away from Sam's fingers. “That man! I don't like him. He wants to keep me here forever.”

“Mom, he wants what's best for you. And I'm going to take you home.” Sam tried again to make contact with her reticent patient, who complied this time.

“Really?” Suddenly suspicious, she pressed Sam. “When?”

“Now. Just let me gather your things, okay?”

**

The aneurysm had crippled Eva's mind and undone the pathways that controlled her muscles and memory. Like most people who suffer brain damage, Eva battled with bouts of aggression and anger, but after the first month they were comparatively rare and mild. It was possible that after a few years of intense therapy, she might be able live alone and take care of herself, but there was no way to tell for sure when or if this independence might be achieved. For the foreseeable future, she required assistance for the most basic tasks, including dressing, bathing, and eating.

She responded to direct questions as best as she could, although she frequently got frustrated when she couldn't remember the answer. She never initiated conversation, and could only focus on the world around her for short bursts of time before her exhausted mind checked out.

In order to keep track of Eva's new medications, Sam bought one of those plastic pill containers with a different compartment for every day of the week. She would refill the tray every Saturday evening.

Unsure of the long-term plan, Sam contacted her professors to let them know the situation and that she was withdrawing from the semester. She asked Natalie to mail some of her textbooks so she could continue reading for school, even if she couldn't attend class.

She'd called her father shortly after she arrived at the hospital the day after her mother had been admitted. She had debated making the phone call, but Eva was an only child whose parents had both died when Sam was a child. She had no other family, and technically she and Jack were still married. She wasn't sure what she wanted from her father in this situation, but the sound of his baritone voice filled her with such relief, easing away the tension in her body for a moment, that she had to sit down. He immediately assured her not to worry about money, and requested she give him updates at least once a day, a task she dutifully performed. Although he never offered to visit, he expressed his confidence that Sam could handle this, and informed her repeatedly that he was immensely proud of her.

She'd let Dolores know they would be coming home today so the older woman wouldn't worry when she saw lights on in the house. There was no one else to call. After much discussion with the nurses, Sam had decided to drive Eva home herself, rather than asking for an ambulance. Although Eva couldn't walk, she could maneuver enough on her own such that, with assistance from her daughter, she could rotate her body from the wheelchair to the passenger seat.

The drive from Burlington to Stowe was quiet. Eva peered out the window, but Sam wasn't sure how much of the charming barns and rolling pastures her mother took in. Spring had come to Vermont, and brilliant spots of yellow that flashed as the car passed bespoke daffodils in full bloom. They barely registered to Sam.

When the car rounded the final corner and the house came into view, Sam's jaw dropped. Both sides of the road in front of her house were lined with cars, trucks, and SUVs, and a couple of bicycles lay on their sides in the front lawn. It appeared that half the town had shown up to welcome Eva home. Father Mark and Alfredo the mechanic came forward immediately to help transition the weak woman from the passenger seat to the wheelchair, which they then lifted up the two steps of the front porch and into the house. As Sam entered, she nodded to the postman and the cashier from the grocery store. Dolores was in the kitchen laboring over a pot of chili on the stove. Tupperware containers, casserole dishes, and round platters covered the dining room table, filled with lasagna, tamales, macaroni salad, soups, and sweets. A big sign reading “Welcome Home, Eva!” stretched across the living room.

Overwhelmed, Sam simply sat down on the couch and stared while people she didn't recognize or hadn't seen in years greeted her mother and wished her a speedy recovery. Most of them stopped by Sam's stiff body on their way out to quietly wish her patience and strength, and assure her they could be called on for help any time, day or night.

An hour after their homecoming, Sam and Eva found themselves alone with Dolores, the last of the guests having seen themselves out. The short, round woman wiped her hands on a dish towel and then plopped down on the couch next to Sam.

“I hope you don't mind, Dear. They all wanted to help, and filling your refrigerator came naturally. No one knew if you can cook.” After a beat, she probed, “can you?”

“Probably not.”

“Well. That can be remedied. There are books for such things and I know you love to read. What else do you need?”

“I'm not even sure. I guess I'll learn on the job.”

“You'll do just fine,” Dolores assured her, patting her knee. “Just remember, she's still your Mama. She'll come back to you. Might take a little bit, but she will. I won't fill your head with platitudes about God opening a window or things not killing you making you stronger, but I'll tell you this: she won't need you forever the way she needs you now.”

“Thank you,” Sam murmured. She looked down at her hands and realized someone had put a glass of Sprite into them. She tipped back and drank the soda absently, her thoughts far away from any hunger or thirst her body might be experiencing.

“Alrighty, I can see you're beat. I am too, truth be told. I'll head on home, but Samantha, you know where to find me.” And with that, Dolores patted her knee again and exited, leaving Sam alone in the house with her dozing mother.

 

May 2008

“Um, hi there. Can I have a piece of frittata to go?” Sam said uncertainly to the brunette fussing with something behind the counter of Stowe Away. She'd finally made it to the restaurant her mother had raved about for the past couple of years, only Eva wasn't by her side enjoying her introduction to the “best little café this town's ever seen.”

“Oh, hello, Samantha. It's nice to see you again. I was so sorry to hear about your mom.”

The 5'-4” Latina with curly dark hair that fell between her shoulders and a cute, curvy body, looked familiar to Sam. She knitted her brows a minute while she cast her mind back to the people she'd grown up with. “Maria Sanchez, right?” She hoped she had correctly identified a girl from her high school. The only thing she really knew about her was that Maria hadn't gone to college.

She smiled softly. “Yes, I'm surprised you remembered.”

“So you work here now? That's great!” Sam tried to sound enthusiastic about waitressing, but they both knew it was hollow.

Nevertheless, Maria grinned at her. “Actually, I own the place. For three years now. It's my baby.” She looked around the space, proudly, and Sam took her cue to do the same.

Dark hardwood lined the floors and exposed brick and rough-hewn wooden pillars gave the restaurant a rustic feel. A dozen wooden tables dotted the room, and a large bar ran the length of the back wall. About twenty patrons were spread across the tables or barstools, sipping coffee and nibbling on pastries as they read newspapers or typed on laptops.

“So it's a coffee shop?” Sam tried to remember what her mother had told her about Stowe Away.

“By day. We close at 1pm in order to get ready for dinner. We have a small dinner menu that changes daily based on whatever's ready from my gardens or greenhouses. It's mostly Mexican and Italian fare, but we throw in some French every now and then.”

“Wow, that's really great. You grow all of the restaurant's produce?”

“Sure do. And whatever extra we have I sell to some other restaurants nearby. My garden is certified organic now, and my cousin owns a sustainable ranch in New Hampshire. He supplies us with meat and poultry.”

Maria's narrative was interrupted by a twenty-year-old man a little shorter than her tugging on her sleeve. His hair color matched Maria's, as did the twinkle in his brown eyes. “You said I could have the leftover donuts, Maria.”

“I sure did Pauly. I'll get ‘em for you in a second.” She ruffled his dark hair.

Pauly grinned at her, then turned his attention to Sam. He extended his hand toward her, saying “My name's Pauly. Who are you, pretty lady?”

Charmed by the young man with Down's syndrome, the normally shy scientist introduced herself with a big grin. “I'm Samantha Latham. I live with my Mom on the other side of town, on Fox Hill. Do you work here, Pauly?”

“Yeah, sometimes, when my sister lets me. I help with the dishes and sometimes the baking. I'm pretty good in the kitchen,” Pauly bragged a little.

“Well, I'm not. Maybe you can show me sometime.”

“Sure, as long as Maria says it's okay. Hey, Sis, can I show Samantha the kitchen?”

Maria chuckled at his enthusiasm and gestured to the kitchen. “Go on ahead, you two. Sam, enjoy your tour. It's nice to see you – come back sometime.”

As Sam was being led by the hand toward the swinging kitchen doors, she turned back to the restaurant owner, thanking her for her kind words and promising to do just that.

**

She was about to hang up the phone after listening to its dull tones six times, when Natalie's flustered voice answered.

“Everything okay?” she asked, panicky.

“Um, yeah. Everything's fine. I just called to talk.”

“Oh. Hey, listen, can I call you back tomorrow?” Sam heard a muffled voice in the background inviting Natalie back to bed.

Sam laughed mirthlessly and bitterly reminded her, “it's two o'clock in the afternoon, Natalie. What'd you do, skip class for a quickie?”

“Samantha, we agreed we wouldn't talk about this.”

Sam shook her head, disgusted. “Why'd you even pick up the phone?”

“Because I keep worrying something's happened to you or your mom.”

“Everything's fine. Peachy. Me and my mom and her brain damage, we are all doing just hunky-dory,” came Sam's caustic reply.

“Just give me a second, okay?”

“Forget it – I'm fine, really. Call me later, when you're free.”

Sighing heavily, Natalie bid her forlorn friend goodbye and hung up.

Sam gazed out the window for long minutes, watching the leaves dance to and fro in the breeze. She was bored and lonely and sick of herself. Wallowing in self-pity was exhausting, she'd discovered. Trying to keep up with new scientific research on cancer felt like a fool's errand for a woman tethered to a rural town far removed from the institution that was supposed to be granting her a degree. There were only so many word games with Eva she could endure. The five different meals she knew how to prepare had begun to taste like each other. It had been six weeks since she'd brought Eva home and she felt completely empty. Even jerking off held no pleasure for her right now, leaving her frustrated and disgusted with herself.

After dinner that night, she and her mom watched “Wheel of Fortune,” a game show Sam detested almost as much as “The Price is Right.” She wasn't sure why, either, since she typically loved word games. It was probably Pat Sajak's hair. She had explained the movement patterns of the different chess pieces twice to Eva, but her mother's head soon began to droop and she wasn't sure if the poor woman had retained any of it. She helped her charge prepare for bed and tucked her in. Satisfied that the recovering woman would sleep soundly for many hours, Sam hurried into her room, changed her clothes, snatched up her keys and wallet, and locked the front door behind her.

**

The deep base drum thumped inside her chest, rattling her insides. Sam wondered fleetingly if this was how an earthquake felt. She'd left the Bay Area before she'd had an opportunity to experience one. The swirling lights and twirling glow sticks played tricks on her eyes, but she threw back the remains of her second beer anyway. Ordering a third, she toyed with the bottle as she prowled her way around the dance floor. Of course Burlington completely lacked a lesbian bar, but she figured clubs were pick-up scenes for all orientations if you were savvy enough to read the signs. She propped her boot up on the rung of a barstool and swigged on her Magic Hat. Hoping to clearly communicate her interest in women, she'd dressed a little butcher than usual, sporting a black muscle shirt, tight ripped jeans, and heavy boots. A group of girls danced with each other a few feet away from her, but she surmised they were performing for any guys who might like a bit of a show. A lone blond leaned against a pillar across the dance floor from her. She was cute, maybe 5'-6” in heels, wearing a slinky purple halter dress. Their eyes met and Sam smiled. The blond looked her up and down before rolling her eyes and turning away. As Sam guzzled more beer, a Goldfrapp song replaced the horribly remixed Rihanna that had been giving her a headache.

She walked again, stopping when she'd gone a quarter of the way around the dance floor. She enjoyed guessing which couples on the floor would be compatible in bed based on how they moved together to the music in the club. Dragging her eyes off the gyrating bodies, she locked gazes with a tall man about her age who was studying her intently. He approached her and before she could tell him he wasn't her type, he leaned in and whispered “it's nice to see family here. My name's Mark.” Surprised at her malfunctioning gaydar, Sam shook his hand. “The redhead in the corner's been staring at you,” he informed her.

Rotating as casually as she could, she discovered that indeed the redhead perched on a barstool in the corner was staring. At her. Sam gulped. Well, this is what she'd come here to do. Thanking Mark, she strode back to the bar and ordered two more Magic Hats. Collecting the bottles, she weaved her way toward the woman Mark had indicated. Her red hair fell in loose curls to her shoulders. Black pants and a low-cut satin blouse clung to soft curves. A silver necklace dipped in between her breasts, which were rising and falling softly, tantalizingly. A slow smile began to turn the corners of the woman's full lips as a bottle of beer was placed on the table next to her. Sam slid it across the table slowly, asking “you thirsty?” in lieu of introductions.

“Thanks,” came the low, sultry reply. Rather than drinking, the woman held the bottle to the side of her neck. “Hot in here,” she explained, closing her eyes as she enjoyed the sensation of cool glass on overheated skin. When she removed the bottle and began to drink, Sam followed drops of condensation around her long neck, over the swell of her breasts, and down her shirt, and her breath caught. When the woman came up for air, Sam found her voice. “Dance with me?”

“I'd rather take you home.” She stood, extending her hand to the startled woman whose eyes revealed arousal and whose thin body and unassuming attempts at control were making her own body hum. This one would be fun to play with.

Mutely accepting the warm, soft fingers between her own, the normally reticent scientist led her quarry toward the door.

**

The next morning found a bleary-eyed Sam clutching a piece of paper in right hand, her left hand supporting her heavy head. She generally disliked her signature for its uneven, messy penmanship, but never before had her signature graced a more loathed document. Fighting the urge to crumple the letter and throw it with all her strength across the room, Sam bit down on her lip and carefully folded the paper into thirds. She stuffed it into an envelope, plunked a stamp down on the upper right corner, and scrawled her mother's address on the upper left corner. The chair legs ground against the hardwood floor as Sam pushed back from the table and strode from the house down the driveway and to the mailbox. She raised the flag, unceremoniously tossed the parcel inside, and slammed the flap shut. Crossing her arms, she pursed her lips at the unyielding house that dominated her view. Tears of anger and depression burned her eyes and she swiped in disgust at her cheeks with the back of her wrist.

Unable to bear returning to the brick and wood that suffocated her these days, she dropped onto the grass and leaned her back against the mailbox post. She pulled out her cell, hit speed dial 2 and pressed send, not really caring that it was 7am in San Francisco.

“God, Sam, don't you understand time zones?” Natalie's low morning voice greeted her. The brunette closed her eyes and let the rough alto tones wash over her, gathering succor from the sound.

“I just withdrew from med school.”

In the pause that followed, Sam envisioned Natalie sitting up in bed, adjusting the covers and slipping her glasses on. “For how long?”

“Indefinitely. I shouldn't move Eva away from Stowe, and even if I could, I can't care for her and be a med student.”

“Oh, Sam.” Their mutual sighs offered scant comfort to both women.

“Are you alone? Can we talk?” Sam hated having to ask.

Natalie sighed heavily. “Yes. I'm alone and we can talk.”

“I wondered if you could pack up my stuff and mail it to me. I'll send you a check. It's mostly clothes and books.”

“Of course. Email me the address.”

“Also, I know you were thinking about buying a car. Want mine?”

“Oh Sam, you love your Jetta!” Natalie protested.

“Well, then I'd love for someone I know to take good care of her.”

They haggled over the price, Natalie negotiating hard to pay more than Sam was willing to accept. After they finally agreed on an amount acceptable to both women, Sam changed the subject. “How are classes?”

“Do you really want to talk about school?”

“Well, I certainly don't want to talk about your love life,” came the bitter reply.

“Sam,” Natalie warned. “Don't.”

“Sorry,” the brunette muttered. “Evidently I'm a bit out of sorts today.”

“Understandable. Just try not to take it out on me.”

“Yes, ma'am. Classes?”

Natalie launched into a lengthy description of all of her classes and classmates, most of which was positive. The blond felt guilty even thinking negative thoughts about grad school while her brilliant friend languished in Nowheresville, Vermont, unable to pursue her dreams. She'd been fortunate enough to land an appointment as a Graduate Student Instructor, Berkeley's equivalent of a TA. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she attended lecture, and on Fridays she taught section for an undergraduate class on “Race, Ethnicity, and Public Policy.” While she loved teaching section, she expressed her surprise that many of her students were ungrateful grade grubbers who clearly only attended college because it was expected of them. “It's disappointing and demoralizing. But of course, you focus on the couple of students who care, and you give your best to them and swallow the rest.”

Sam struggled to swallow the jealousy that seeped through her. “Have you figured out what you're doing for the summer?”

“Oh, Sam, I'm so excited! I'm going to Japan for the summer to teach ESL classes! I'm already hooked up with housing and everything.” As Natalie gushed, Sam felt her heart sink. “It'll be great to get away for a while, and the job shouldn't be too demanding. It should leave me with plenty of time to work on my law school applications if I decide to apply.”

“Law school?” Sam sputtered in disbelief.

“Eh. Who knows. I've met some law students around campus, and they seem cool. Since I can't seem to decide on a career, I might as well make a ton of money as a lawyer and buy a mansion in Marin. I could take the ferry to work.”

Sam rolled her eyes. Evidently Natalie was as close to figuring out what career she wanted as Sam was to graduating med school. So much had changed for Sam it seemed almost unfathomable that nothing at all would have changed for her best friend. She wondered when she would even see Natalie next.

As if reading her mind, Natalie offered, “maybe I could head out there between summer and fall semesters. Do you think you and Eva would be up for a visitor?”

“Yeah, I think we could put up with your high-maintenance self for a few days,” Sam teased, feigning a light-heartedness she in no way felt.

“I am SO not high-maintenance!” Natalie pouted.

“No, you're actually not. But even if you were, I wouldn't mind maintaining.”

“Great, then we'll make it happen. I'll probably be pretty inaccessible for the twelve weeks I'm in Japan, I'm sorry to say, but I'm already excited to see you and Eva. Please give her my best.”

Sam assented, and they fell into conversation about the drawing down of primary season and the ramp up to the conventions and the general election. “You feeling any better, kiddo?”

Natalie's concern melted Sam. “Always. You always make me feel better. Thank you for being a friend.”

After a beat, they both continued together, “travel down the road and back again. Your heart is true – you're a pal and a confidante.”

They wound up giggling, and quoting some of their favorite “Golden Girls” lines. When Natalie offered, “my life is like an open book,” and Sam returned with “your life is like an open blouse,” the two were goners.

June 2008

Eventually Sam settled into a routine. Every other day, she played word games with Eva in the morning, then caught up on some medical and scientific journals when her mother napped. 11am-1pm saw Eva laboring away in her physical therapist's office while Sam did some more reading at Stowe Away. When they returned home, mother and daughter would watch a game show or two, working on Eva's vocabulary recall and other skills, followed by another nap for the recovering woman. On the other days of the week, Sam strode through the stacks of Bear Pond Books, assisting customers and re-shelving carelessly discarded texts, trying to pull in some extra money and feel as though she were contributing to society while a nurse stayed with Eva. At least once a week, after dutifully tucking her recovering mother into bed, Sam slid behind the wheel of her mother's Chevy, pulled the gear shaft into “drive,” and pointed the car to Burlington. She'd never seen the redhead again, but she'd found others. She made sure she was back in her mother's house by 6am in case Eva awoke early. If her mother noticed her absence, she never said anything. Sam felt like a naughty high school deviant, and once she actually toyed with the idea of crawling through her bedroom window, just to complete the sordid picture.

This particular Tuesday, Eva had been at physical therapy for an hour and Sam had been slogging through the latest Nature at Stowe Away when Pauly plopped down beside her. “Whatcha reading?”

Happy for the distraction, Sam found herself trying to distill the article about cancer genetics. It had always helped her to understand what she read if she tried to explain it to someone, and she found in Pauly a rapt audience. He asked questions about everything he didn't understand, including some of the jargon that slipped into her descriptions unconsciously. Regretting, not for the first time that hour, that she was not teaching science and medicine at a prestigious university, Sam proceeded to explain some of the other articles in the issue open on the café table.

“Pauly, you're not interrupting Sam, are you?” Maria asked gently from over his shoulder.

A little startled out of her teacher mode, Sam shook her head. “Nope. We were just having a good time, weren't we, my friend?”

Pauly beamed at her, then turned his brilliant gaze to his sister. “Sam's smart. She was teaching me about genes.”

“Not the kind you're wearing, I take it,” Maria winked at her brother, then dropped into a chair next to Sam. “I heard you were a scientist.”

“Yeah.” Sam suddenly felt sheepish, as she always did when someone from her hometown asked her about school.

“So if you weren't here caring for your mom, would you be out somewhere curing cancer?”

Sam chuckled ruefully. “That was actually the plan. I was in my first year of an M.D./Ph.D. program at Stanford.”

“How come cancer? There's lots of stuff to cure.” Pauly's genuine curiosity took Sam aback.

“You know, I don't know. I guess it's just what I always thought I'd do.”

“But now you're here, working at a bookstore.” Maria's eyes offered understanding and compassion.

“Best laid plans …” Sam trailed off.

“Hey Pauly, Brendon wondered if you'd give him a hand in the kitchen for a minute.”

“Sure thing!” Pauly stood up and started toward the swinging doors, before he turned around and said politely, “Excuse me please, Sam.”

Touched and amused by the formality, Sam responded, “Of course, Pauly. Come back and say goodbye to me, though!”

Silence fell on the table as each occupant was lost in thought. Maria broke their reverie. “Pauly's a great help around the restaurant. And I love him so much. But it's not easy when your plans change.”

Green eyes found brown ones, and understanding passed between them. “Your parents?” Sam asked.

“Car crash. Senior year of high school. I was already eighteen, so I took Pauly and forgot about college. He had two years left in high school, and he loves it here, so I wasn't going to uproot him. Used my inheritance to start the restaurant and all that goes with it. It wasn't what I'd planned, but I don't have any regrets. He's happy, I'm happy, the restaurant is successful.”

Sam was struck by her complete ignorance of the lives of the people in the town she now lived. The woman at the table with her had gone to school with her since kindergarten yet she knew practically nothing about the Sanchez family. As she fumbled with an appropriate reply, Maria stood.

“It was nice to see you again, Sam. I'm glad you come here to get work done. Please let me know if you ever need anything.”

Blushing at her rudeness, Sam stood also, not really sure if she should shake hands with Maria or hug her, or just shove her hands in her pockets and rock back and forth on her feet awkwardly. She wound up with option three, knocking her thighs into the table and rattling it enough that her tea sloshed onto her notebook. She grabbed frantically at some napkins and Maria smirked at her a bit. She patted Sam's shoulder and walked away. Adjusting her chair to sit back down, Sam was interrupted by Maria calling over her shoulder, “I'll have Pauly bring a slice of frittata for you to take to Eva.”

Sam gathered her things, shoving her laptop, notebook, and Nature into her messenger bag. Closing the flap and buckling the straps, she caught sight of the spiral on the canvas that was Timbuktu's insignia. During Natalie's architecture phase, the blond had told her that all designers – in fact, all cool people who wanted to live in New York, had to own a Timbuktu messenger bag, and Natalie had dutifully purchased one for each of them. Sam wondered if Natalie still used hers, or if she had already burned through three other designers in her infinite search for her sense of style.

Glancing up, Sam noticed Pauly holding a to-go box out to her. “Will you come back tomorrow and teach me more science?”

“Well I can't tomorrow, buddy, but how about the next day?”

“It's a date,” the young man said, and they shook on it, Sam pleased she was able to correctly say goodbye to at least one Sanchez that day.

 

July 2008

Four months into her recovery, Eva found herself taking tentative steps on her own, without the assistance of a cane or walker. It was a sunny Saturday morning, and the windows opened onto the warm breeze and the promise of a beautiful day. Sam lingered at her mother's elbow, ready to provide support should she falter. Eva's diligent efforts at recumbent physical therapy had yielded muscle regeneration capable of carrying her from the living room recliner to the kitchen island, however, and her eyes glowed as she eased into a stool. Sam beamed at her and even clapped a few times at her mother's impressive accomplishment.

“You, dear woman, deserve a reward! Your culinary wish is my demand!

Eva smirked at her and, concentrating very hard, slurred, “what can you make that won't send either of us to the ER?” Her speech was generally much improved, but when physically exhausted her mouth sometimes struggled to wrap itself around the sounds good diction required.

“I don't know, you might just enjoy a trip to the ER. That Dr. Kruse is a real looker.” Sam laughed with her mother, then turned to peered into the fridge. “How about scrambled eggs with … spinach, tomatoes, and cheese?”

When Eva didn't answer, Sam stood and glanced over at her. The older woman's eyes were vacant, her mouth open a little.

Sam's shoulders slumped as she returned to her task, removing the ingredients for breakfast from the Kenmore and grabbing a frying pan from the hooks over the stove. The sound of the metal pan against the range brought Eva back, a little. “Sam? I'm hungry.”

“I know, Mom. I'm making breakfast.”

Eva processed this for a minute. “Can you cook?” she asked earnestly.

“I suppose we'll find out,” Sam said, exhaling heavily. As she began whisking eggs, she glanced over her shoulder to see Eva's brows furrowed, her eyes darting around the room.

“We're in the kitchen.” It was a statement, rather than a question, but Eva's confusion was obvious.

Sam left the butter to melt and crossed to her mom, gently sweeping an errant tendril of red and grey hair behind Eva's ear. She rested her hand on Eva's shoulder and bent down to kiss her mother's forehead. “Yeah, Ma, we're in the kitchen. You walked here, all by yourself. I'm proud of you.”

Eva placed her hand on top of Sam's. They stayed that way, each woman lost in her own head, until the butter began to sizzle. Sam slipped back to the stove.

Scrambled eggs complete, Sam deposited two plates of more than edible breakfast on the table and turned away to retrieve utensils and toast. Her progress was stopped by Eva's hand on her arm. “I'm proud of you, too, Samantha.” Sam turned and studied her mother's eyes. She was at a loss as to whether Eva was simply parroting back a standard response, or genuinely expressing a sentiment she felt toward her aloof daughter.

Sam broke the spell, spinning around to gather the pumpernickel, jam, forks, and knives. Eva ate slowly, each journey from plate to mouth taking an eternity. Every three or four bites her progress stalled and she slipped away. During these lapses, Sam would remind her verbally or physically to continue. Clearly the exertion necessary to move from the living room to the kitchen entirely under her own power had taxed the recovering woman greatly. They had each consumed half their repast when the silence began to feel oppressive to Sam. With no particular intention whatsoever, Sam remarked, “It's gonna be hot.”

“It is? Oh. What month is it?”

“It's July, Ma.”

When they finished, Sam scooped up their plates and deposited them in the sink. She returned to Eva's side, and, grasping her elbow, encouraged her back into a standing position. She wrapped her arm around Eva's waist and slowly guided her absent mother back to her default position in the worn plaid chair. She covered Eva with an afghan, and caressed her cheek with the back of her fingertips. “It's July fourteenth, Mom. My birthday.”

Slowly, Eva raised her eyes to meet the green ones gazing at her. “I don't have a birthday present for you.”

“That's alright, Mom. I don't need anything.”

Eva seemed to think about this a moment. “I can give you a hug.” Sam's throat and chest constricted as she knelt down and melted into her mother's arms.

**

Much later that evening, long after Eva had gone to bed, the humidity broke, replaced by hard, driving rain and lighting. The temperature dropped twenty-five degrees and the wind rattled the windows all through Stowe. Sam closed the door between the kitchen and the garage, and drew her arms around herself to ward off the chill of the poorly insulated storage space. Tables of art projects lined the walls, and a shelving unit of sporting equipment hid behind layers of dust and cobwebs. Sam walked down the length of one of her mother's crafts tables, studying the half-finished projects languishing there. The artist's tools, including sanders, welders, hammers, chisels, files, brushes, rulers, and scales, stared back at Sam forlornly, almost accusing her for their disuse. Sam picked up a foot-high sculpture of a man and a woman sitting on a bench and studied it. Their hands both grasped the seat beneath them, and upon closer inspection, she noticed that their pinky fingers were entwined underneath the slats. She wondered how lonely her mother must have been these past few years, abandoned by both her husband and her daughter, and she ached for the life her mother had wanted, and the one she would now muddle through.

She moved along the work tables, running her hands over works in progress and tools, finally clasping her hands around a box containing drafting leads. She studied them, thinking of the semester Natalie decided to major in architecture. Her short, strong fingers were continually decorated with graphite, which she sometimes absent-mindedly smeared across her forehead when she concentrated. Sam found it adorable and more than a little sexy, and had always longed for the courage to wipe it off Natalie's perpetually-tanned skin. She was surprised to discover, when she pulled herself away from her reverie, her hand clenched around the leads. She moved to return the box, but found herself launching it across the garage instead. Her vision blurred as she swept her arms across wooden tables, sending their contents across the room. She kicked boxes, threw down empty easels, and shattered half-baked pottery. Her chest heaved as she upended a table, sending brushes and watercolors across the garage floor. Growling, she turned on pile of unsuspecting balsawood, breaking it in half again and again until finally hurling the tiny pieces toward the door to the kitchen. Grunting, she launched herself toward the sculpture of the couple on the park bench. Clasping the artwork in both hands, she raised it over her head, but stopped short of throwing it to the concrete. Time slowed as she lowered the beautiful, nearly-finished piece. She barely managed to return the object to its home on the workbench before she stumbled backward, jolting as she collided with the fridge. She slid to the ground, a puddle of anger and sadness, and wept.

**

Sam staggered up her mother's driveway, coughing and squinting through bloodshot eyes. Her clothes reeked of smoke, and as she raised her hand to rub her eyes, she realized her fingers stank of cigarettes too. “Gross,” she thought to herself. “Remind me again why this is supposed to be so cool?” She coughed again, the pounding rain obscuring the doorknob as she groped around, striving to fit her key into the lock. She tripped through the door and, closing it behind her, leaned blinking against it while she adjusted to the new environment.

She stood up straight, sobering instantly. Maria, a book resting against her chest, was curled up on the couch, lightly snoring. “What the hell is she doing here? Jesus!” Sam rubbed her eyes, wondering if she were messed up enough to be imagining things. Nope, the restaurant owner slumbered away, oblivious to Sam's return. Soft light from the floor lamp nearby illuminated her peaceful face and her dark curls. Aphrodite, snuggled in the crook between Maria's tucked knees and her stomach, stretched a bit and glared at Sam. Annoyed, Sam threw a blanket over Maria, carefully tucking it around Aphrodite's little body, and proceeded to her mother's bedroom.

Eva slept quietly, the stuffed elephant tucked under her arm. The quilt on top of her bed was cockeyed, but more or less covered her small form.

Sam crept to her own bedroom. For a brief moment she considered slamming the door, but pragmatism won out as she appreciated this would hurt her more than anyone else in the house and she gently closed it instead. She undressed and threw out her contacts, figuring the smoke ruined them for future use. She ran her fingers through her hair and immediately regretted the action, as the stench of stale smoke wafted from her head. She thought briefly that she should probably shower before she passed out, but her heavy muscles barely had the energy to carry her across the bedroom. Sighing, she dropped heavily onto the bed, not even bothering with the sheets or comforter. Sleep took her instantly.

**

She awoke to the sounds of the shower running and strains of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Groaning, she drew on a robe and nearly ran into the door jamb on her way into the kitchen. Thankful that she'd prepped the coffeemaker before leaving for Burlington the night before, she toggled the “On” switch and leaned over to put her forehead on cool tile of the countertop. As she studied the irregular patterns in the wood grain of the floor, she could faintly hear Maria crooning from the bathroom. “I bet there's rich folks eating from a fancy dining car. They're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.” She found herself swaying a bit as Maria sang the guitar riff, and she decided Maria had a nice voice.

She must have drifted off a bit, despite her uncomfortable position, because the next thing she knew the coffee machine was beeping at her. She filled a mug, paused, and filled another. Leaving the second mug on the counter, she wrapped her hands around the warm porcelain and stared at the dark liquid inside. She walked unseeing down the hallway, enjoying the feel of the cool tile under her feet. Glancing briefly into Eva's room and noting with relief that the red-haired artist still slept, she continued toward her own bedroom.

Her musings were interrupted by the bathroom door opening. Maria emerged, toweling her hair, wearing only jeans and a lacy, see-through red bra. When she saw Sam, she must have jumped three feet into the air. Upon landing, Maria threw her hand over her heaving heart, exclaiming, “Dios mio!”

“Um, boo?” Sam offered weakly.

Seconds passed. Maria finally managed to get out multiple consecutive words. “I didn't know you were home. When did you get in, Samantha?”

Sam awkwardly cleared her throat and forced herself to look into Maria's dark brown eyes as she replied, “Late. Who did you think gave you the blanket?”

Maria's towel hung limply by her side, and she raised her chin, defiantly refusing to cover up. “House elves?”

The two women stared at one another, the second-hand of Eva's cuckoo clock on the wall ticking once, twice, five times. Sam licked her lips, and felt the heat rise to her face even as she knew she would lose this battle. Her eyes dropped to Maria's chest, which was still rising and falling heavily, residual effects from being surprised. Maria's eyes narrowed and she threw her towel over Sam's head, brushing past her as she moved into Sam's bedroom and closed the door. Sam stood there a moment, covered by a wet towel. She realized where the towel had just been, and how sweet it smelled, and the heat from her face descended a few feet.

She continued to stand there, her scalp growing damp from the towel, like a total dolt. It began to dawn on her that Maria was in her bedroom, and she finally managed to collect herself. She hastily removed the towel and poked her torso into the bathroom long enough to drape it over the rack on the wall before marching toward her bedroom door.

She bellowed, “and just what do you think you're doing in there?” and raised her hand to knock. Before her knuckles made contact with the door, however, Maria pulled it open, took the mug from her hand, and walked past her toward the kitchen. As she passed through the archway into the kitchen, she threw out, “Thanks for the coffee.”

Sam stood rooted in place. Who the hell was this woman, and why on earth was she wandering around Eva's house like she lived here?

Maria reentered the hallway, her body and coffee now dressed, and as she passed Sam again she reached out and slapped her ass. “Did you grow roots there?”

Sam followed her into the living room and watched her fold the blanket and drape it over the back of the grey and red sectional. As Maria gathered her purse and began putting her coat on, she indicated her shirt. “I'm borrowing this. I hope you don't mind.” Sam knitted her eyebrows, recognizing her favorite long-sleeved Tee, the words “San Francisco 49ers” pulling tight across Maria's full chest. For a moment she forgot to be mad, as the image of the body underneath the shirt flooded back into her mind. She shook her head to dispel the vision, then realized in frustration that she was simultaneously granting permission.

“Remind me again why the hell you're in my house?” The ease with which the expletive rolled off her tongue pleased her immensely.

“I never told you in the first place. You mom woke up in the middle of the night, confused. She called me, and I sat with her until she was asleep again.”

“Oh.” That made sense. Didn't it? “How does she have your number?”

“I gave it to her a long time ago. Before. She used to come into the restaurant for scones or frittatas every morning.”

“She did?”

“Yep. Talked about you a lot. How proud she was of you. That sort of thing,” Maria said pointedly, digging. “You reek, you know.”

“No, I don't,” Sam lied.

“Yes, you do. You stink of booze and cigarettes and sex.”

“I went out last night,” she mumbled in response, running a hand through smoke-infested locks.

“No shit, Sherlock. Been doing that a lot, huh? Trips to Burlington to forget? Are you driving home drunk? Jesus Christ, Sam, you wanted to be a doctor! And I don't have to tell you about the dangers of cigarettes. What are you thinking?”

“What gives you the right to march in here and judge me? Where do you get off?” Sam's voice started to rise.

“Your mom called me! She was confused, and you weren't here for her!” Maria's voice matched Sam's, and the two women were soon toe to toe, bellowing at each other.

“You have no idea what I'm going through!” Sam protested.

“Oh, I don't? You think you're so special? Listen, Raskolnikov, you're no better than the rest of us. We've all got stuff to deal with, but you're acting like a child. You can't drink this away. If you're not up for this, if you can't care for her, you need to make other arrangements.”

“What do you know about it? You with your perfect restaurant and your perfect little life in this perfect little town?” Sam spat.

Silence descended, as they both knew Sam had just made an ass out of herself.

“Feel better now?” Maria asked, coldly. “Just so you know, this isn't the first time she's called me in the middle of the night when you were getting wasted forty miles away.”

“Samantha? Honey, can I have some tea?” Eva appeared in the doorway, leaning heavily on the frame, looking small and lost. Noticing Maria, her demeanor brightened considerably. “Maria! How are you, sweetie? Oh, Sam, do you know Maria? She makes the best frittatas.” Sam hurried over to her mother and, taking her arm, guided her to the recliner. Pecking her on the cheek, she wished her a good morning. “One tea, coming up!”

She threw a glare at Maria and growled at her, “you can find your way out.” Spinning around, she marched off to the kitchen.

**

Three hours later, Sam pulled her mother's Chevy into the parking lot of Stowe Away, after having dropped Eva off at physical therapy. Nodding to the regulars, she proceeded behind the bar and into the kitchen. Brendon, the kitchen manager, stopped chopping leeks long enough to nod his head toward the office in the back. The normally gregarious kitchen manager had something of a menacing appearance about him today, and Sam noted the skilled way he wielded the large chopping knife. Clearly word had traveled about her less than chivalrous behavior. Taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders, the forlorn scientist marched to the closed door and rapped three times.

“Yes?” Maria's voice was heavy through the door.

“It's Samantha. May I come in please?” Sam inquired.

A pregnant pause followed her question before Monica's soft, “okay.”

Sam entered and closed the door behind her. Turning, she found herself in a small room, Maria seated on the other side of a desk behind a laptop. “Come to apologize?”

The wind gone from Sam's sails, she mutely nodded. The two women stared at each other from opposite sides of the small office. After a beat, Maria laughed quietly. “Then do it, Moron.”

“Oh, right. Ahem.” Affecting a loud, formal voice, Sam commenced. “Maria Sanchez, I do sincerely apologize for my dastardly behavior earlier today. I was a rogue and a scoundrel.” She softened her tone and said sincerely, “you didn't deserve that. Thank you for coming when my mother called.”

“You're welcome. And I'm sorry too, Samantha. I shouldn't judge you. I know you're having a hard time right now.”


Dropping into the free chair, Sam inquired, “how did you deal with it? When your parents died and everything changed for you?”

“Oh, I drank some. Didn't drive to Burlington to do it, but I partied right here in Stowe. But once I decided to start the restaurant, I threw myself into that. Between meeting with contractors, planting gardens, and recipe testing, I didn't have the energy to drown my sorrows.”

“I don't have anything like that.”

The feisty restaurant owner leaned back in her chair and studied the woman across the desk from her. “You don't want anything like that. You're unwilling to commit to living here, Sam. You're just biding your time until something changes and you can go away again. Look, you can, of course. There are facilities you can move your mom to, and you can be on your merry way. Is that what you want?”

“No. Yes. I really can't say,” Sam mumbled, defeated.

“Well, you've got some shit to figure out. But this perfect little town isn't as bad as you think it is. Why don't you get to know it a little, and then you can make a more informed decision.”

Sighing, Sam nodded. “I suppose there's sound logic there.”

Maria flashed her a smile. “I think we survived our first fight. Always bodes well for the strength of a relationship.” They both laughed, the tension dissipating considerably.

“Hey, where did Pauly stay last night?”

“My uncle's. Pauly can stay by himself here and there, but if I'm going to be out for a while Uncle Rod takes care of him.”

“Oh.” Sam thought on that a moment. “Well, how about we work out a trade. I'll watch Pauly and Eva when you want to go out, and you can watch them both when I want to go out?”

“Doesn't work for me. We'd never be able to go out together,” Maria reasoned, simply.

Sam could only stammer, “oh.”

“Relax, kiddo. I'm just trying to be your friend. You seem like you could use one.”

“Yeah, okay. I would be grateful to be your friend,” she said, hoping she came across as gallant and not pathetic.

Maria rolled with it, either way. “Listen, I have to get back to planning next week's menu. You should stop by my place sometime. Feel free to bring Eva. She and Pauly always got along well. They used to draw together. Don't see why that has to change. And you and I can figure out what we have in common besides our devastating good looks.” The petite woman scribbled her address and phone number on a strip of paper and slid it across the table toward her new friend, her eyes twinkling.

“Um, thanks.” Sam stood and tried to make her way toward the door, but managed to trip on either the legs of the chair or the rug underneath it – she wasn't sure which. Clutching the doorknob to steady herself, she flushed in embarrassment. “And again, I'm sorry for this morning. And last night. And the nights before.” she mumbled.

Maria made no attempt to hide her smirk at her acquaintance's less than grateful exit.

August 2008

“Oh, come on, Zeus, just bring it back!” Sam hollered at the Chesapeake Bay retriever wagging his tale and looking at her expectantly. “I already threw the damn thing. Fine, here!” Sam pretended to throw something else, and the dog took off after air. “Okay, now, bring it back. That's a good boy. Yeah, right here buddy. Oh for crying out loud, stop! Come back. Here. Here, Zeus! Here boy!” Sam patted her leg as Zeus overshot her, ran in a wide circle, and traipsed back to her thigh. He dropped the disgusting, slippery Frisbee at her feet, sat down, and whined. “Good. Yes, this is called fetch. You're doing well, my canine friend. Let's see if we can't improve our record to 2 for 9.” Sam flung the plastic disc again and Zeus took off.

Sam had decided to make an effort at normalcy, which according to the masses who decided such things meant acquiring a big dog to play with in a park. If she wasn't headed back the sanctuary of a cramped apartment in an urban mecca or a lab sometime soon, she'd decided, she might as well go down to the pound and pick up something to drool on her. She plopped down on the blanket she'd brought and pulled out her thermos of tea. She knew it would be at least six minutes before Zeus returned with the Frisbee. He'd already run right past it and was now barking at a squirrel. Sam squared her shoulders. She could train a dog. She knew it.

As she was musing over whether or not to buy a book on the subject, a shadow fell over her lap, and she looked up to see Maria.

“May I join you?”

“Sure, of course.” Sam scooted over to one half of the blanket, just as Zeus returned triumphant from his Frisbee hunt. He deposited the much-gnawed-on toy in Maria's lap and began thoroughly licking the newcomer's face. Struggling to keep her mouth closed and her tongue protected from inadvertent French kisses with a retriever, Maria made weak efforts to push him off her.

“Zeus, here. Down boy. Down. Yes. Good. Now sit. Sit! Good. Okay, good. We're getting somewhere.” Turning to Maria, she smiled crookedly. “Sorry about that. Our lesson in manners isn't scheduled until next week.”

“Ah, I see. A new recruit, then. What's today's lesson?” Maria inquired.

Sam launched the Frisbee into the air again and commanded, “fetch.” This time, rather than sailing parallel to the ground for twenty yards like her previous throws, the Frisbee gained height until it became perfectly lodged in an oak tree.

“Of course,” Sam mumbled. Zeus, unfazed, bolted to the maple tree next to the oak tree and began barking vigorously.

“I wonder what he's saying to it,” Maria pondered.

Sam's sense of humor, however, was thrown off-kilter just like the plastic projectile. “My dog is literally barking up the wrong tree. My life has turned into a bad joke.” She stood, wiped the dog saliva from her hands onto her jeans, and marched over to her misguided pet. “Zeus! Zeus, this tree!” She tried to point her dog's nose in the right direction, but he wasn't having it. Cursing and physically struggling with her wayward retriever, Sam barely heard Maria say “I brought you a sandwich.”

Sam turned to her. “You did? That's funny, I didn't realize how hungry I am until you brought up food.”

“Why don't you let Zeus be a silly dog and come eat?” Maria suggested.

Sam returned to the blanket and gratefully accepted a sandwich from Maria's bag. She took a bite and her eyes rolled to the heavens as she moaned in pleasure. “Thank you Maria, God of Food. How on earth can you make a sandwich this good?”

Maria winked at her. “I don't divulge my secrets that easily. If you're lucky, I might let you tease them out of me, nice and slowly.”

Some of Sam's sandwich went down the wrong pipe, and she coughed. Her eyes watering, she gestured to the thermos on the other side of Maria, who chuckled as she handed it over. In her rush to drown her coughing, Sam ended up dumping half of the contents of the thermos over her face and down her shirt. “Oh for crying out loud!” she sputtered. By this point, Maria's laughs had deepened to guffaws.

After drying Sam off using the blanket they'd been sitting on, and trying to quell her laughter, Maria solemnly informed Sam, “you really might be the clumsiest person I've ever met.”

“That's me. I excel in all I attempt,” Sam returned wryly, offering her new friend a shy smile. Secretly, she reflected that she'd never been this graceless before, and wondered about the origins of this newfound klutziness. Zeus chose this moment to return from the nearby river he'd discovered and shake off vigorously next to Sam. Maria bit her lip, but couldn't suppress her laughter. She dragged her index finger across Sam's brow, collecting the river water, mud, and part of a leaf Zeus had flung there and holding it up for Sam to see. “You need a bath.”

Sam's damp locks clung to her forehead and the back of her neck, and she was painfully aware that she and Zeus both looked like drowned rats. “That's it, it's decided. I'm never leaving the house again.” Zeus plopped down next to Maria and began devouring Sam's half-eaten sandwich. “Thief,” Sam dubbed him.

“That's a shame. I was going to invite you to a little gathering I'm having at my house at 8pm. I think you might like what you see there,” Maria said seriously, but there was a glint of mischief in her eyes.

“Well, far be it for me to turn down an invitation from a pretty lady. Is there a particular dress code for this fete, and might I bring some libations to fortify us all?”

“Sam, I've never seen you wear anything other than jeans, black boots, and a button down shirt. Do you even own anything else?”

“Ahem. Yes, I do. I just haven't had an occasion to break out the fancy clothes since I've been back here. Besides, I happen to like what I like. Routine. Order. Predictability.”

Maria snickered as she rose to leave. “Well then, I insist you come in a red cocktail dress. Plunging neckline. Slits up to god knows where. Stilettos.” Sam stammered to come up with a reply, discomfort written all over her face. From ten yards away, Maria threw over her shoulder, “Bra and panties optional!”

Sam groaned and began the thankless task of getting her wet and muddy dog into her car.

**

A couple of hours, a shower, and an entire bottle of doggie shampoo later, Sam found herself on Maria's doorstep, a four-year old Tawny port in her hand. Dolores had happily agreed to do her evening crossword puzzle at Eva's, which was fortunate because it took the two of them to get the cranky and agitated woman to go to bed that evening. The cuckoo clock on the wall in the kitchen had already chirped the appropriate melody for eight-thirty before Sam was ready to depart. Secretly, the older woman was immensely relieved her young neighbor was finally leaving the house for a social engagement, and with that charming, successful restaurant owner no less. Dolores had seen a thing or two in her life, and she knew that two lonely people could do a lot of good for each other.

Google Maps informed Sam that Maria's house was situated a mile and a half away, and the warm evening air and promise of alcohol enticed Sam to walk to the gathering. She'd opted for grey slacks, a lightweight black sweater, and black loafers, hoping to demonstrate to Maria that her wardrobe wasn't as limited as she'd let on. She'd even foregone her usual ponytail, her layered tresses fluttering in the light breeze. A jean jacket lay draped over her arm, prepared to shelter her from the plummeting temperature when she left the party. She double checked the address scrawled across the piece of paper containing Maria's home address, and confirmed she was on the right stoop.

The house was set back from the road, and large oak and maple trees populated the front yard. The path from the sidewalk to the porch wound around a dozen adorable knee-high lights, a bench, and flowerbeds currently playing host to a squirrel and a rabbit. The house was a charming L-shaped New England cottage, complete with red shutters, a rocking chair on the porch, and a metal rake leaning against the railing, waiting for the fall which always arrived early in Vermont. Soft lighting emanated from the downstairs windows and a faint smell of cinnamon wafted from the door. The porch light was on, and a rug in front of the door introduced itself to her with the words, “Hi, I'm Mat.” She dragged sweaty palms down her pants, took a breath, and knocked.

She was startled when Brendon opened the door and leaned against the door frame. “Hey, Legs,” he greeted her, grinning like a Cheshire cat. She scowled at him, thinking he was much more endearing when she wasn't on uncertain terrain. “Welcome. I'll take your wine and coat. You can head on downstairs, but please enter quietly. Alfredo is on a roll, and there's hell to pay if you interrupt him.”

“Alfredo? As in, Alfredo's Auto Mechanics?” she asked as she handed over her jacket and port.

“One and the same.” Brendon gestured down the hall.

After Sam passed a dining room on her left and a hallway that likely lead to bedrooms on her right, she moved through a heavy oak door and descended into a large, dimly lit, basement. The bar ran the length of the room on her right, and the remaining space was divided into a carpeted sitting room and a hardwood floor with full-length mirrors and a ballet barre along the wall. Bookcases lined the two walls of the sitting area. At present, mismatched loveseats, ottomans, and rocking chairs were scattered about the room. A brown baby grand piano occupied the far right corner, in front of which was an intricately carved wooden music stand. A series of easels stood clustered in the left corner, their contents covered with a lavender bed sheet. Alfredo gesticulated animatedly in the center of the room, frequently indicating different features of an architectural model perched on a low table.

Sam silently slipped into the room and found an unoccupied chaise near the door, where Brendon joined her. She divided her attention between the burly mechanic explaining green methods of heating and cooling and the other occupants in the room. Pauly, wearing corduroys, suspenders, and a button-down shirt, sat nearby. Maria had donned the exact outfit she'd described to Sam, and the reclusive scientist pondered for a minute about the status of her host's undergarments. She rolled her eyes at herself and continued surveying the room. A young woman who might have been sixteen or seventeen, wearing all black, was taking notes, her pen flitting quickly across a steno book. A middle-aged man and woman she didn't know shared a loveseat, and an elderly gentleman sipping a gin and tonic reclined on a deep chair with his feet propped up on an ottoman, his expression skeptical. Finally, Sam recognized the pastor from the church, Father Mark, who was leaning forward in his chair and nibbling on an earpiece of his glasses. Alfredo finished his presentation, and Sam listened while the other occupants of the room questioned him on the economics of green architecture, and the often tenuous balance between environmentally-conscious construction and aesthetics. Sam was glad to be sitting in the back and she puzzled over what kind of gathering this was, exactly. After Alfredo returned to his chair, the high school girl strode to the center of the room, closed her eyes, and began reciting poetry.

Once Sam got past how awkward it was to watch the girl standing with her eyes closed, she realized the verse was actually pretty good. It tended toward unnecessary angst, as one might expect from a teenager, but the girl used language well, interspersed some nice imagery, and employed some well-placed allusions to other writers. Her style was reminiscent of Whitman, although her content was more in line with Dorothy Parker. She clearly needed help with performing, but Sam closed her eyes for a moment and realized the girl had a nice voice and read well.

When the poet finished, applause broke out across the room. The girl opened her eyes, and looked around the room, startled for a moment to discover where she was. She smiled sheepishly, and cleared her throat. “So, as you all know, this is my first time presenting at the salon. I would be grateful for any feedback you could give me.”

Sam felt Maria's eyes on her, encouraging her to speak, and she found herself offering the young bard some detailed compliments and gentle suggestions for improvement. A few others in the room did the same, and then Maria stood and announced it was time for a little break.

Sam sauntered over to Maria as other guests milled about chatting, refilling their glasses, or pointing at features of the architectural model on the table.

“So what do you think of my salon?” Maria asked, grinning proudly.

“Definitely not what I was expecting. It's wonderful. I'm impressed, truly.” Sam beamed at her. “How long have you been doing this?”

“Oh, we started last year. It's grown a little over time, and we've lost some members, but we meet every other week or so to share our work with each other. Wine?” Sam nodded, and followed Maria to a table with glasses and various bottles of alcohol and sparkling juice.

“So Alfredo's an architect? I thought he was a mechanic.”

“He's a mechanic by trade, and an architect by passion. He firmly believes in keeping your hobby separate from your paycheck. He enjoys studying architecture in books and on his travels, and he converted his son's old bedroom into a studio so he can draft and make models at home. But he fears if he were to ever turn architecture into a career, he'd start to resent it.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Sam mused. “So everyone here has some artistic practice as a hobby?”

“Not exactly. See that man Hunter is talking to?” Maria indicated the high school poet and the elderly gentleman who wore a grey suit. “Earl Munroe. He played viola in the Boston Symphony Orchestra for forty years. He retired a couple of years ago when he grew weary of city life, and moved here.” Maria's mirthful eyes grew serious. “When he plays, Sam, you'll be covered with chills. I swear, I thought I was in heaven.”

Maria put her hand on Sam's back and guided her over to the poet and musician, who were animatedly speaking about Brahms. Sam found her mind drifting, as it often did, to Natalie. For the first time, Sam wished Natalie were in Stowe with her, rather than wishing herself in San Francisco with Natalie. Her jack-of-all-trades friend would love the variety of art she could experience through this salon, and would be thrilled to meet a professional orchestral musician.

She blinked her musings away, and extended her hand to formally meet Hunter and Earl.

**

Fifteen minutes later Maria interrupted her guests' informal conversations to call the salon back to order. Introducing Sam as her first bit of business, Maria invited her reclusive friend to say a little about herself to an audience they both assumed knew the basic biography anyway. Sam listed the requisite information – her age, her undergraduate degree, her mother's career as an artist, and her interest in sonnets. She left out that she actually wrote them.

Father Mark took the floor next, pulling the coverings off the easels and revealing two paintings. Not knowing a ton about visual art, despite having grown up surrounded by it, Sam could only describe them as modern, abstracted versions of Renaissance “Jesus art.” He spoke at length about composition and color, comparing the original paintings he'd abstracted with the end product. He outlined about his goals for the pieces, and the ways in which his execution had fallen sort of his hopes.

“I'm a limited artist, really. I mean, I can see what I want in my head. But, you know, executing it is another thing. I didn't get the shadows right, of course. But, I'm guessing you'll all agree this is better than my previous attempts.”

Sam fixated on the unnecessary words in his sentences and she marveled that someone who regularly stood in front of congregations delivering what was purportedly the word of God could be so inarticulate. Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard her mother's name.

“Excuse me?” she interrupted.

“I said, it's been a while since I've had work to present, but Eva's advice from last time was really helpful. Hey, Sam, maybe you could mention that to her? It really meant a lot to me, you know.”

Sam's cheeks burned as she encountered yet another facet of her mother's life people in Stowe knew more about than she did. Unwilling to ask what Eva's involvement in the salon had been, Sam merely nodded.

“Great! Well, I mean, does anyone have any thoughts?” During the pause before comments began, he fidgeted with his collar.

**

Sam lingered after the gathering had dispersed, helping Maria and Pauly wash wine glasses and refrigerate cheese plates.

As nonchalantly as she could, Sam probed, “so, my mom came here?”

“She did. It was basically her idea. She and Pauly were drawing one day, and she and I got to talking about how artistic many of the people in this town are. She mentioned what a shame it was that neighbors didn't share their work with each other, and I started droning on about the artist salons in France and how beautiful I thought they were. She just shrugged and said, ‘no reason it can't be beautiful here, too,' and that my basement would be perfect.”

“Complicated woman, that Eva. There's so much about her I never knew. Guess there's so much I'll never know now.” Sam nibbled on a square of Cabot cheddar.

“Oh, I wouldn't say it's too late,” Maria responded, somewhat evasively. “You're here, she's here. Talk to each other.”

“Maria, some days she can barely remember the word for coffee.”

“Brains work in mysterious ways. You of all people should know that. Put a paint brush in her hand. Give her some clay. Let her find herself through art. That's how she survived in her first life. I don't see why it should be any different in her second.”

Sam was struck by the wisdom of this woman whom she barely knew, who hadn't gone to college, who had lived her entire life in the same house. And her mother – Sam had always been embarrassed that Eva hadn't attended college. But of course she had to acknowledge that Eva knew things she didn't. She remembered arguing with Natalie once about the value of different intelligences, the Californian of course exalting those who might not understand quantitative physics but whose knowledge of composition, space, and materials dwarfed Sam's.

“Want to share with the class?” Maria raised her eyebrows and Sam checked back in.

“I was thinking that you're pretty smart.”

The two women smiled at each other, and Sam was captured by the depth in Maria's eyes. Their deep brown matched her dark hair, and the slight crinkles at the corners of them bespoke an warm smile that struck Sam as incongruous with the misfortune life had thrown at her.

“Hey, Sis, can I have the rest of the brownies?” Their eyes drifted from each other to Pauly, whose sweet tooth made Sam smile.

“You bet, Buddy. But I think you should wait until after breakfast tomorrow. You've already polished off the cookies.”

Pauly grinned proudly at his accomplishment.

“I should go. Thanks for a wonderful evening, Maria.” Sam headed toward the stairs, but had only climbed the first two before Maria's voice stopped her.

“I might have had an ulterior motive when I invited you.”

“Oh?” Sam leaned against the open banister, gazing down at the petite beauty with the mischievous eyes.

“In addition to hoping you'll facilitate Eva's return to our salon, I was hoping you would be willing to present some of your own work.”

“I don't draw,” Sam said simply.

“Nice try, tough guy,” Maria rhymed. “You write.”

In the pause that followed, Sam felt that she'd been played. Finally, she shrugged. “I don't know how you know that. But I'll think about it.”

“Our rule is that you can only come to two meetings as an observer, and then you have to present. You were a mathlete.”

Sam's eyes narrowed as she tried to decide if she felt annoyed or charmed. She settled on feeling the latter before bidding the Sanchez siblings “adios.”

**

Tentative knuckles rapped four times on the red door. When Pauly opened it, he was nibbling on a popsicle. His lips and tongue glowed green as he welcomed Sam and Eva inside. “Can I get you anything?” he offered.

“Got any purple ones?”

“Dunno. Let's see.” As he poked around the freezer, Sam guided Eva into the dining room and took a moment to look around the main floor, which she had simply breezed past the previous week when she proceeded straight to the basement for the salon.

The rustically appointed first floor suited what she knew of the restaurant owner. Deep hardwood floors stretched from the entry way through the formal dining room and into the kitchen. The open floor plan gave a lightness to the heavy oak table and chairs that looked to be Amish made, as well as the rich leather sofa and the thick rug just visible through the doorway into the living room. As she drifted around the rectangular table large enough to seat a dozen guests, she noticed with surprise a vase her mother had made resting on the sideboard. She was fingering it absently when a one-eyed, one-eared, grey cat brushed against her leg. Squatting down, Sam wound her fingers through patchy fur and was rewarded with a purr of contentment.

“I see you've met Hephe,” Maria observed from the entryway.

“Hefe? He seems…sweet.” Sam had never encountered a more hideous cat in her life.

Maria laughed good-naturedly, before complimenting Sam on her tact. “Nice euphemism, Poet.”

“He's not the prettiest purr-machine I've ever met,” Sam returned, flashing Maria a lopsided smile.

Nodding, Maria explained, “he'd survived a nasty fight in the woods when I found him. Probably with a coyote. He looks better now than when I first rescued him, but he'll never be the handsomest of cats. That's why I named him Hephe.”

“Like, Jeff?” Sam Anglicanized the word, confused.

Maria approached the pair, squatting down to scratch under the cat's chin. “I thought you loved the classics, Samantha. Hephe, short for Hephaestus.”

Sam dropped her hand from the animal in question. “You can't be serious.”

“What's the matter? You named your dog after a Greek god.”

“Yes, and I named my cat Aphrodite,” Sam explained.

They looked at each other and burst out laughing.

Shaking her head, Sam mused, “well, if we ever want kittens, we'll have to introduce them. I'm sure it will be love at first sight.”

Maria studied her and Sam found herself dropping her eyes under the penetrating gaze. After a long moment, Maria broke the silence, calling to her brother. “Hey buddy, did you offer our guests food and drink?”

“Yep. I just found a purple one for Sam. Hey Eva, what kind of popsicle do you want?”

Wrinkles formed across Eva's forehead as she gave the question serious thought. The new surroundings had thrown her a bit, and she seemed to be casting back for memories of the place that felt familiar. Finally, just as Sam had decided to answer for her, she asked for orange.

“Coming right up!” Pauly presented the treats with a flourish. “We used to draw downstairs,” he informed Sam, “but we can hang out at the dining room table, right, Sis?” Eva's walking had gotten better and better, but stairs still eluded her.

“Sure thing. I'll be in the living room if you need anything.”

Sam unloaded the bags of supplies she'd brought, and before long Pauly and Eva were bent over large sketch books, surrounded by charcoals. Pauly showed the older woman some of the drawings he'd been working on since her aneurysm, and he talked with her about shading, composition, and perspective. He summoned up lessons she had given him, and he returned them to her, gently, following her cues. Sam observed in quiet fascination from the other end of the table as Pauly encouraged when Eva appeared ready to move on, held back when she needed time to process, and, when her eyes asked for it, delicately placed a pencil between her shaking fingers.

The line that bisected the sketch paper wiggled with uncertainty, punctuated by dark dots where the pencil that drew it ground to a temporary halt. Soon other marks joined it, groupings of swirls dominating the top right quarter of the page and harsh angles in the lower left. Surprised to see her mother, whose art had always been representational, sketching out an abstract drawing, Sam leaned forward to get a better view. Of course, knowing next to nothing about abstract art, Sam didn't know what she was looking for, or how to interpret the image, but it seemed to her the drawing captured the sense of loss that pervaded Eva's life. Lines and shapes interrupted each other, never quite complete, always redirected or abandoned.

Sam marveled at the power of Eva's muscle memory and training, her experience guiding her more than her conscious mind. As Eva smudged portions of the upper left corner with her weak, trembling thumb, Sam realized that once her mother regained some strength and dexterity, she could easily return to art in some, perhaps altered but nonetheless meaningful, capacity.

A slightly wild gesture from Eva pulled Sam's focus back to her surroundings. Baffled as to what her mother was asking for, Sam watched nonplussed as Pauly slowly tore the drawing out from the sketch pad and presented Eva with blank sheet. Curious, Sam gazed as her mother clasped the charcoal with a firmer hand this time, and approached the sheet with more confidence. Lines sprang from nowhere this time, reaching for eternity, filled with a hope. Swirls untangled as some unseen force seemed to lift the drawing up, endlessly upward. The energy of the lines propelled Sam forward, and she gravitated toward the image filling the paper and the woman creating it. Nothing would be smudged in this second piece. Despite the slight shake in Eva's hand and the resulting tremor in the lines, every curve and every angle spoke of clarity of purpose. Twenty minutes passed, then thirty. Sam's knees began to ache, but the intensity pouring off Eva held her in place.

When finally Eva leaned back in her chair, her brow glistened with sweat and she was completely drained. Pauly separated the drawing from the blank pages remaining in the pad, and Eva tiredly reached for it. She gestured to the other drawing as well, and she slide them until they rested side by side on the table in front of her. Sam stood, her knees screaming as the blood began to flow through them.

“Mom? Would you tell me a little about these?” she asked, hesitantly. She didn't want to pry, and she feared her mother wouldn't be able to articulate an answer, but she had to ask. She craved this window into her mother's soul.

Indicating the first image, Eva simply said, “before.” She swung her hand toward the second, labeling it “after.”

“After? After your accident?” Sam asked in disbelief.

“Yes. After. Now.”

Sam bent down in front of her again. “This drawing,” she tentatively reached out and picked up the second, “is it happy?'

“Yes, happy. Love.”

“Love? You're happy? Now? Why?”

With effort, Eva turned her torso so she fully faced her daughter. “You.”

Sam sat back onto her heels, stunned. Gingerly, her mother reached out and caressed her cheek. The lanky scientist's eyes closed a bit as she leaned into the touch. When she looked up, three pairs of eyes smiled down at her, filled with pride and affection. Maria, her hip resting on the doorway between the living and dining rooms where she had quietly observed the preceding moment, nodded at her before turning and disappearing into the kitchen.

Sam turned her head and lightly kissed the back of her mother's fingers. “Thank you, Mom. Would you like to draw more?”

“No. Tired,” her patient said, and she looked it.

“Pauly, I think we'll head home now. But you've been great. Thanks for helping my mom.”

“No prob,” he returned. “She helps me back, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. She helps me, too.”

Pauly helped gather the supplies and pull a light windbreaker onto the exhausted artist, chatting amiably with his former mentor, making plans to draw together soon. Clean-up well in hand, Sam drifted into the kitchen to find Maria perched atop the island, her legs swinging a bit as she leafed through a recipe book.

“Planning new menu items?” Sam inquired.

“No, actually, I'm reading up on cocktails.”

“I thought Stowe Away only had a beer and wine license.”

“Sam, Dear, not everything is about work you know.” Maria hopped down and, closing the book and dropping it onto the granite top, approached her guest. “Everything go okay today?”

“Yeah. More than okay. Thanks for inviting us over.”

“Anytime. In fact, why don't you ask Dolores to watch after your mom tomorrow night and come back. I'm having a little gathering. You should join us.”

Sam offered her a crooked smile. “I fear I'm not much company these days, and this has been a lot of socializing for me.”

“Oh, I'm sure you'll be fine. Bring ten bucks and your game face, my dear, because we're playing poker. And I should warn you, the house always wins.” Maria winked and bumped into her as she passed the taller woman on her way to bid Eva goodbye.

“Oh brother,” Sam intoned under her breath. “At least I'll only lose ten dollars.”

“Relieved we're not playing strip?” Maria called from the other room.

Her thoughts briefly flitting to the image of a red see-through lacy bra and Maria's heaving chest, Sam groaned inwardly, “you have no idea.”

**

“Call.”

“Call.”

“Raise.” The blond woman next to Maria tossed in a blue chip casually. Everyone's attention turned to Maria, whose gaze flitted between her cards and the deep brown eyes of the blond. Sam's foot began to twitch impatiently. Finally, Maria matched. The rest of the table folded, leaving the blond and Maria. Two pair against three of a kind, and yet again Maria gathered up a pile of chips and stacked them in front of her.

“More beer, anyone?” Sam asked, raising and heading toward the bar. A chorus of yeses prompted Maria to help carry the many bottles back from the fridge. As they were bent together with their torsos in the cold, gathering Magic Hats and a Guinness (which was apparently the only beer the blond would drink), Maria hissed, “Samantha, can't you at least try? I invited you to make friends, not because of your stellar Esther Greenwood impression.”

“Sorry,” Sam mumbled insincerely.

“Don't say it if you don't mean it. Why don't you just go home?”

Sam straightened up and clenched her jaw slightly. “I'm staying.” She stormed over to the table deposited bottles in front of three other women, and flopped into her chair. She'd arrived stressed after a moody Eva refused to take her medicine, and shortly after meeting the women she'd be playing poker with her mood inexplicably plummeted even further. She'd been surly and nonresponsive for most of the night.

“So Sam, Maria tells us you do medical research?” the blond inquired.

Sam couldn't really figure out why she was so bothered by Brandi. Maybe it was her name. Or her hair color. Or the haughty way she played poker. Whatever it was, Sam found being civil almost impossible. Knowing she couldn't prevent the condescension from creeping into her voice, she merely grunted her assent as she snatched up the deck and started shuffling.

The five women were five hands in by the time Sam had arrived, and introductions had been brief. After observing the rest of the hand currently being played, and making mental notes about the women gathered around the table, she had decided coming had been a mistake. Since then, she'd barely paid any attention to the four strangers and Maria, choosing instead to focus on her mismatched cards. Three hands later Sam was down three dollars already, and she wondered why in the hell she'd agreed to come in the first place. She couldn't bluff or, really, mask her emotions in any way. Obviously.

She coughed when Maria's boot collided with her shin, and the cards swam as her eyes watered in pain. Swallowing hard, she cleared her throat and muttered, “how do you all know each other?”

“Jamie and I met Maria when we came into the restaurant on a date one night. That was, what, two years ago, Hon?” The speaker, a short, slight woman named Jenny, turned to the equally short, equally slight woman next to her. Oh, Jesus , Sam thought. Look-a-like lesbians. How did my gaydar managed to miss those two? Even their names sound alike!

“Yeah, that sounds about right. We've been Stowe Away regulars ever since. And you've been taking our money over cards for, what, six months now, Maria?”

“You'd think you would have gotten better after all this time,” Maria teased.

The older, athletic woman seated at the end of the table, Sam learned next, was named Kathy. When she revealed that she had had just taken a position as the new gym teacher at Stowe High School, Sam suddenly wondered if there might be a theme to Maria's poker game. Sure enough, when Brandi said she met Jamie and Jenny in a bar in Boston, and her eyes twinkled, Sam felt sure she knew exactly what kind of bar. She turned curious eyes to Maria, who by this point was actually laughing at her.

“Sam thought she was a party of one here in Stowe,” she explained to the other lesbians, who joined in the laughter. Sam felt her cheeks grow hot and she began to deal the cards. To deflect attention away from herself, she asked Kathy what it was like to teach gym. While the pleasant but gruff woman babbled about the scarcity of equipment, Sam snuck glances at Maria, trying to figure out her enigmatic hostess. Gay, then? Huh. And although they'd never discussed it, clearly Maria knew Sam liked ladies. Well, it was a small town. Probably everyone knew.

Sam had never experienced prejudice when she grew up at Stowe, but she still surmised that small towns in America were not likely to welcome gays and lesbians with open arms. She'd kept her sexuality mostly to herself, although by the time she'd graduated high school it was pretty much an open secret. One of the reasons Sam struggled so much with her relocation back to Stowe had been the loss of a gay community. She had believed she'd need to sneak away to Burlington to find other lesbians, and had remained reclusive in part because she feared reactions to her sexuality.

And so as it dawned on Sam that there was in fact a gay community in Stowe, and she was being invited into it, she quickly vowed to make a sincere effort to get to know these women. She was simultaneously overcome with the desire to become acquainted with all her neighbors, gay or straight, and to learn more about the town she'd shut out growing up, choosing instead to lock herself away with books and journals. More than anything else, the realization that there were other gay women in Stowe thrust on her a sense of what her self-imposed isolation was costing her.

So she dove whole-heartedly into conversation with the five women around her, learning while her pile of chips dwindled about their careers and who was funny (Jamie) and who was sincere (Jenny) and who was just annoying in every way possible (Brandi). She dug deep to find her most charming self, dusted her off, and put her on display, realizing with pleasure that she still bore up under scrutiny.

It only took four more hands for her to grasp that part of her charm lay in her complete inability to play poker. When the other women at the table chuckled at her irregular and impetuous betting style, and the obvious way she always played exactly what she had in her hand, she was happy to learn she could laugh along with them. “I have . . . other talents,” she offered, and just like that she became one of them.

September 2008

“Good morning, Samantha,” purred a rich voice from behind her. She turned to find Maria leaning against the door to the Stowe Away kitchen, observing her. “You're becoming quite the fixture here.”

“Oh, you don't mind, do you?” Sam stammered, abruptly transitioning from focused on her journal to more than a little uncomfortable under Maria's gaze.

A soft smile and a gentle head shake provided her with an answer. “I'm glad.” The restaurant owner made her way over to the table with what Sam could only describe in her head as a sashay, her hips swaying gently.

“Thanks for inviting me to poker last week. I had fun.”

“Did you?” Maria asked as she leaned over and broke off a piece of Sam's scone. “I wasn't sure.” She leaned back in her chair and nibbled on the stolen bit of confection.

“I'm sorry I was a grump when I first arrived. Yes, despite losing the entirety of my ten dollars, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Jamie and Kathy are hilarious, and Jenny is very sweet.”

The pause that followed was telling.

“Not fond of Brandi, then?”

“Oh. Um. I don't know. I didn't feel like I got to know her, really,” Sam tried to punt.

“There's that poker face that won me so much money,” Maria ribbed. “You really are the worst liar I've ever seen.”

Sam nodded her agreement. “I can think of worse faults.”

“Me too. You going to answer my question honestly now?”

“She seemed a little, um, over-eager,” Sam returned, weakly.

“Yeah, I agree.” Maria sighed. “She's been asking me out for the past three months. I've been toying with the idea of saying yes just to shut her up.”

“Oh,” was all Sam could say before she swallowed a sip of tea, which went down the wrong pipe and made her start coughing. Her face turned red, her eyes watered, and she gasped for enough breath to clear her throat properly. Maria gestured to Pauly, who brought over a glass of water while Maria gently rubbed Sam's back.

“Sorry,” Sam said weakly through her gasps.

Maria tried to look concerned, but failed to suppress the little grin that stole over her face. “True to form.”

“I'm getting quite the track record,” Sam sputtered. “Mom sent me to dance classes when I was a kid to teach me grace. Guess it didn't stick.”

“We'll just have to test that some time. How is Eva today?”

“Pretty good, actually. She slept well and is lucid today. We did our exercises this morning and she's getting stronger and more patient. She drew some, too. Just little sketches, and she kept forgetting what she was doing. She would peer at the pencil in her hand like she'd never seen one before, and then just as suddenly return to her drawing, picking up right where she left off.”

“The gaps will grow shorter and less frequent.”

“So the doctors say.”

“You want to be a doctor. What would you say?”

“Probably the same thing,” Sam admitted.

“Well, you might not be in med school right now, but you're certainly gaining experience that will be invaluable to you when you're practicing medicine.”

Sam's brows furrowed a bit. “I wanted to do research,” she deflected softly.

“Wanted? Past tense?”

“Well, yeah, I don't imagine it matters much now.”

“Oh, I think you're selling Eva short.”

Sam shrugged noncommittally.

“Listen, Sam, I have to go up to Burlington on Thursday to meet with someone about business. I was hoping you'd join me.”

Sam looked as though she were about to refuse, so Maria continued. “I know Thursday is the nurse's day with your mom, and I could really use your help.”

“My help? What for?” Sam asked, a little warily.

Maria waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, this and that. Nothing you can't handle. So I'll pick you up at 9am.” She stole another corner of scone as she rose and began to saunter back toward the bar. “Oh, and Sam, wear something nice,” she called out before pushing the kitchen door open and disappearing.

**

Thursday dawned, overcast and forlorn, and the skies threatened rain. Unlike some years when the temperature spiked in September, summer was already declining in central Vermont. Truth be told, Sam adored this weather, finding the electricity vibrating in the air before the skies opened up utterly thrilling. She woke early, her subconscious perhaps recognizing that overcast mornings offered Sam the perfect atmosphere for writing, and she toted her steno pad to the back yard. She'd left a note on Eva's nightstand instructing her to call out her window if she woke and needed something. In the past week Eva had made a huge leap in progress, and Sam felt comfortable leaving her alone for brief periods of time. She hoped with all her might that this change was permanent, silencing her fears about setbacks by focusing on the strides they had made.

Leaning against a tree, she placed the tip of her pencil to the paper on her lap and tried to empty her mind of the static that swallowed the lone voice inside her which drove her writing. More often than not that soprano timbre spoke of Natalie and true love and overpowering desire. As predicted, though, Natalie's stint in Japan precluded regular communication, other than the terse email informing Sam she was staying on a few more weeks and would be bumping her trip to Stowe back to Thanksgiving. Her presence in Sam's subconscious seemed to have dimmed. Quieting the noise of her mind revealed not the blue longing and black torment Sam was accustomed to, but instead, a purple hope, a red fire, a white satisfaction. Forcing herself not to overanalyze it, Sam began writing.

An hour and forty-two lines later, three sonnets extolling the virtues of country life, reveling in the possibilities of a life outside one's expectations, and basking in the simplicity of affection for people, covered two notebook pages. Sam reread them, deciding that the first and third were good enough to read at the next salon she attended. It was more than Sam usually wrote in one sitting, but whereas bouts of writing typically left her feeling empty and spent, she still felt there was more to purge.

The light gray clouds rolled by, moving quickly across the September sky, replaced by more ominous collections of dark moisture. A few errant drops began to fall, heralding the coming onslaught. Bent over her notebook, shielding the paper from the water, Sam continued to write. Two more sonnets appeared, one comparing coffee-colored eyes to the images of Sam's backyard and one relating the complicated relationships between words and form, rhythm and structure, to the sophisticated way a woman could sneak up on you and claim your heart. The rain began to fall in earnest, denying Sam the opportunity to reflect on her newest creations. Stuffing her notepad under her sweatshirt, she scampered to the backdoor, fat drops of water falling from drenched tendrils of hair and sliding in rivulets down her cheeks and neck. She deposited the writing on her bed before heading to the bathroom. Briefly studying her reflection in the full-sized mirror on the back of the door, she stripped off her saturated clothes. Her green eyes flashed with the passion that filled her whenever it rained, she wrote, or both. Her hair clung to her forehead, and she thought briefly that she looked like a wild, slightly crazed thing. She brushed her bangs back, but neither looked nor felt tamer. She studied the contours of her body, which had remained as slender as when she had started college. Turning on the water and feeling the steam hit her face, it dawned on her that she hadn't had sex in many months. As she took care of herself, unclear collages flooded her brain, images of curly dark hair, olive skin, and brown eyes, flashes of heavy breasts and a full, tight ass, the weight of a body shorter than her own pressed against her. Sam's brain went blank as her own knowing caresses drew out shudders of release.

**

Twenty minutes later, Sam answered the doorbell and admitted the nurse. She reviewed Eva's new medication schedule with the nurse while drying her hair, and briefed the nurse on Eva's physical therapy progress in between bites of cereal. She had phoned a coworker at Bear Pond and acquired a sub for the day. When Maria pulled into her driveway, Sam quickly kissed Eva on the cheek, bid farewell to the nurse, and trotted out the door. Maria shifted the manual transmission 1973 red Mustang into reverse and the road trip was underway. The houses grew farther apart as they made their way out of town and into the expanse of hills and valleys that dominated the Vermont countryside. Sam stole glances at the driver, unable to explain why embarrassment flooded her cheeks every time her eyes lighted on the woman at the wheel. Between her surreptitious gazes, Sam discovered unexpectedly that Maria was beautiful. Quiet reigned between them, Sam too distracted to say anything and Maria content with the low tones of Rubber Soul as the only sound in the classic car. If Maria noticed Sam's furtive glances, she gave no indication.

Sam's disquiet increased as the miles pass until she finally broke the silence. “So remind me again, who are we meeting in Burlington?”

“I never told you to begin with,” Maria returned, grinning.

Sam waited, but nothing more was forthcoming.

Maria took pity on her uncomfortable friend, and initiated conversation. “So tell me what med school was like.”

Relieved to be discussing her favorite topic, Sam began with classes. “Stanford is on the quarter system, so we take more classes than most, but they're shorter. Fall quarter was Applied Biochemistry, Genetics, Cells and Tissues, and Development of Diseases. In the winter we took The Nervous System, Immunology, and Organ Systems. I was about to start studying pulmonary and cardiovascular systems when I got the call about my mom. So I was beginning with MD curriculum, and would have moved on to more individuated Ph.D. study after completing this first year. The week I got back here, I was to have met with my advisors there to establish a schedule for stem cell research, which has grown a lot more controversial than when I started as an undergraduate.”

“Yes, I know. My extended family is very Catholic, and somehow whenever we get together we wind up in heated arguments about when life begins,” Maria explained.

“Add that to the list of things we have in common,” Sam chuckled.

Maria continued prompting Sam. “So what would you be doing right now if you were still there?”

Sam pondered that a moment. “Actually, Fall quarter starts late at Stanford, so I don't think I'd be in classes yet. I had planned on spending the summer in the lab there researching, but I'd probably be on break at this very moment.” Sam's eyes drifted out the side window and she stared absently at the cows dotting the pasture they drove past.

Sensing a shift in her friend's attitude, Maria inquired softly, “what would you be doing on break?”

“Maybe I'd be here,” Sam answered, a little evasively, as she wondered if she'd possibly be wherever Natalie was.

The car bore them inexorably closer to Burlington, and the uncertainty was wearing on Sam. “Seriously, Maria, what are we doing today?”

An enigmatic smile was her response. “So have you thought about what's next for you, Sam?”

Confused, Sam requested clarification. “What do you mean, next for me? I take care of my mom. That's what's next.”

“I don't imagine that will be what you do with the rest of your life.”

Uncomfortable with this line of questioning, Sam sought to effectively end it. “Well, it's what I'm doing for the foreseeable future.”

The car turned off Interstate 89 and onto Route 2 as Maria remarked, “seems like you need to work on your foresight, then.”

Rather than replying, Sam fidgeted with her fingers. Singing “If I Needed Someone,” George's voice filled the silence.

Maria turned right onto University and suddenly they were on the Burlington campus of the University of Vermont. It all felt eerily familiar to Sam as they continued to the hospital where Eva had spent a week in a coma and then long weeks in recovery. Surprise crossed Sam's face when Maria parked the car.

She angled her body so she faced her driver. “You're going to the hospital?”

“No, Samantha, you are. Dr. Owen Banks, chair of the University of Vermont medical school, is in the second-floor cafeteria waiting for you. He seems to think you ought to apply for UVM's M.D./Ph.D. program for admission next fall. I have no idea where he got such a notion,” Maria finished with a straight face, but her eyes twinkled.

Caught between irritation at Maria's meddling and excitement at the prospect of returning to med school, Sam merely stared, paralyzed.

“Because of the extenuating circumstances, and Stanford's unusual quarter system schedule, he'd like to speak with you about how best to transfer credits for the coursework you've already completed, and invite you to start researching in the summer before classes begin. Sam. Samantha? You have to get out of the car now,” Maria gently urged her.

Sam hurriedly scooped up her bag and, throwing open the door, tripped out of the car.

**

Sam's usual reserve shattered, she chatted animatedly the entire drive back to Stowe. Maria sipped on the subpar coffee she'd picked up at the bookstore while waiting for the meeting she'd arranged to end. Sam filled her in on the details of her discussion with Dr. Banks and then proceeded to issue jargon-filled descriptions of what she planned to do in the lab once summer began, some of which Maria actually understood. “This is perfect, really – Burlington's only forty minutes away, and I made that commute in California. I'm not sure if Mom will be well enough to be by herself for eight or ten hours straight, but I'll be there at night, and I'll figure something out for during the day.” She yammered on cheerily, and it was Maria's turn to steal glances at her road trip companion. Sam wore optimism well, she decided.

“Obviously, it's not as prestigious as Stanford, and I might not have access to the facilities and advisors Stanford offered me, but I'm pretty good at this, and I can be good anywhere.” Maria snorted softly at the confidence radiating off Sam, who kept talking. “Maybe if I play my cards right, and start making connections at Dartmouth now, I'll match there for residency. It's farther away from Stowe, but who knows where Mom will be at that point. I'll figure it out.”

Sam's imaginings about the future filled the time until they were back in town, but Maria passed the turn off to Sam's house. Sam pointed out the window, watching the street recede. “Maria, I live down there.”

“I know. But ice cream's this way.”

They smiled at each other, both feeling immensely satisfied with herself.

September 2008

The grin that graced Eva's face couldn't have been wider. Resting easily on a loveseat in Maria's basement, she was surrounded by admirers, all making over her progress, remarking how good she looked, and praising her much-anticipated return to the artist salon. Sitting proudly at her right hand, Pauly flashed Sam a high wattage grin that competed with her mother's in terms of sincerity and brilliance. Much to mother and daughter's delight, Maria served tamales for the occasion. The room teemed with art work and instrument cases and the soft strains Bach's Italian Concerto warmed the space. Leaning against a wall near the back corner, contentedly observing the affection passing between Eva and her admirers, Sam swigged on a Magic Hat.

As Pauly began to pass sheaves of paper filled with his most recent sketches around the room, Maria melted away from the action and joined the Sam in the corner.

“Quite a night,” she noted, sipping her own bottle of ale.

“Indeed it is. Thank you, Maria. You've given art back to my mom.”

“I don't deserve all the credit,” Maria demurred. “You started it by bringing her over to draw with my brother.”

Inclining her head, Sam concluded, “let's agree it was a group effort.”

“How are you holding up?” Maria touched Sam gently on the arm, her warm eyes encouraging Sam to speak candidly. It had been over a week since they'd seen each other, and Maria surmised from Sam's absence at the café that Eva had had a couple of rough days.

“Okay. Mom contracted the flu last week. It would appear that her immune system will be indefinitely compromised, and she'll come down with colds and the flu with some frequency. I'm just hoping she can avoid pneumonia. But, she's improving now. My dog now knows how to shake hands. I might be going back to school next year. And,” she glanced down shyly before raising hopeful green eyes, “I have made some friends here.”

Chuckling at the solemnity with which Sam admitted to appreciating her new community, Maria swatted at her. “Of course you have. Did you think we were all socially inept wackos?”

“No, I thought I was.”

“Oh please,” Maria returned lightly. “You're a person just like the rest of us. As my abuela always said, ‘eat beans, you'll fart too.'”

Eva looked up at the musical sound of her daughter's laughter, floating just above the conversation about Pauly's work, and exhaled contentedly at the vision of two beautiful young women giggling in the corner.

“Your abuela sounds hilarious. My mom's mom was always telling me, ‘be still, like broccoli.' I was kind of a rambunctious kid,” Sam confessed.

They were exchanged stories about their grandparents and the odd sayings they'd grown up hearing when Hunter, the teenage poet, approached them, a little tentatively.

“Sam? I was wondering if you'd…um, Maria said…would you be interested in…”

Maria leapt to her rescue. “Samantha, it's time you graced us with some poetry.” She placed her hand on the disconcerted woman's back and gently guided her toward the center of the room. The various conversations died down as everyone's focus shifted to the newest member of their salon. Clearing her throat, Sam drew out the folded paper she'd stowed in the pocket of her cardigan and began to read.

Considering how hastily she crafted it, the sonnet wasn't her best work in terms of scansion or style, but it was clear to her audience that the poem about accepting a slower paced life came from her heart, not her over-analytic mind. When she finished, a prolonged silence ignited her fears that the poem was god-awful. Once the various artists of Stowe had a moment to process the nuanced language, however, they broke into enthusiastic applause. Hunter suggested making a slight change to her opening and concluding line, and Father Mark asked for clarification about one of her allusions. When the critique session died down, Eva extended her hands, and Sam approached her, clasping them in her own.

“Love you,” was all Eva's mouth said, but her eyes spoke volumes, and it was more than enough for Sam.

Eva didn't have much to say about the work shown at the salon, but her cheeks glowed with excitement and she maintained focus the entire two hours she spent in Maria's basement. After Earl played a Ravel piano solo that he'd arranged for viola, Sam packed up their belongings and nudged Eva to say her goodbyes, explaining that even though not everyone had presented yet, she wanted to depart while her mother still had the strength to climb the stairs.

It was Eva's first social outing, and despite the fatigue it generated, a tired smile was plastered on her face the entire drive home.

 

October 2009

NPR was interviewing pundits about the upcoming election as the Chevy approached a little sign by the side of the road indicating Stowe was 10 miles ahead. Having determined that Eva was self-sufficient enough to nap on her own, Sam had decided to go for a drive. It had been an unseasonably cold fall, and two inches of snow blanketed the Vermont countryside. The grey sunset glinted on the white shrouding everything in sight and despite the Chevy's well-functioning heater, Sam shivered. Peering through the windshield, she noticed something by the side of the road and, when the dark figure shifted she realized with concern that it was a woman on the ground. Checking her review mirror, Sam determined that no one was behind her and it was safe to hit the brakes forcefully. She came to a stop about sixty yards past the woman whom she could see was struggling to rise. She snatched up her cell before exiting the vehicle and cautiously approaching what she now ascertained was an injured runner. As she closed the distance, the shape of the woman grew familiar to her and soon she was sprinting toward Maria.

“What the hell happened??” she shouted.

“Oh Sam, thank god it's you.” The pain etched across Maria's face dissolved into relief. “I tripped on something hidden in the snow and I twisted my ankle. Hurts like a wicked fuckin' pisser,” Maria grimaced, struggling to cover her pain with a ridiculous New England accent.

“What on God's green earth are you doing out here?”

“Having a bake sale. What do you think I'm doing out here?” Maria asked with exasperation. “I was running.”

“Running?” Sam repeated, as if the concept were completely new to her.

“Yes, running. I run. With my legs. One of which currently doesn't work.”

“Right. Okay. I'll go get the car.” Sam didn't move. “You run?”

Maria gestured to her athletic clothes and shoes, then the surrounding countryside which bore no signs of civilization. “Evidently. Why are you so shocked? What do you do for exercise?”

“Nothing,” Sam muttered. “Be right back.” She took off at a light trot toward the car and was embarrassed to be winded by the time she reached her destination. Running. Running was for crazy people. She put the car in reverse but drove much slower than caution dictated, hoping to catch her breath by the time she reached her apparently athletic friend. Not wanting to risk sliding as the shoulder narrowed, Sam stopped the car thirty feet away.

Maria stood on one foot awaiting assistance as Sam exited the car and hurried over to her. She wrapped her arm around the runner's waist, and Maria leaned heavily against her shoulder.

“Can you put any weight on it?”

“Hurts like a hell, but I can sure try.” Maria gritted her teeth and limped twice, her breath coming in sharp gasps.

“Stop, this is stupid. I can carry you.”

Maria turned to her skinny friend and gave her an appraising look. “I'm not sure you can carry a watermelon, Baby. You just admitted you don't work out.”

“I'm not offering to do the lift, but I'm quite confident I can carry your short ass fifteen steps to the car,” Sam said, huffily. She bent and, sliding one arm underneath Maria's knees and the other behind her shoulders, scooped up the shorter woman. “See? No problem.”

“Uh huh. Let's see you walk now, Buffy,” Maria challenged.

Taking steps was far more challenging than simply standing still holding the injured woman, but Sam slowly but determinedly put one foot in front of the other. Maria rested her head against her rescuer's chest, listening contentedly to the quick heartbeat beneath her ear. When they reached the car, Sam stood still, clearly at a loss, gazing down at her precious cargo. For a moment, both women were simply content to be close, to feel the warmth radiating off of their bodies, to share a quiet moment together.

Finally Maria lifted her head from its soft resting place. “You can put me down now,” she softly encouraged Sam.

When she gently lowered Maria in front of the passenger seat and pulled open the door, Sam triumphantly announced “your chariot, Doubting Thomas.”

Maria took the rib as an opportunity to poke Sam's abdomen. “Nope, no muscles. Don't know how you pulled that one off.” It's clear her heart wasn't in it, though, and they continued to stare at one another. Blinking, Maria shyly expressed her gratitude. “Thank you for rescuing me. You are stronger than you look.” She reached out with her left hand and ran her fingers across her savior's cheek.

Sam's eyes closed for a prolonged blink before they flew open again, revealing slight alarm. She cleared her throat. “Um, do you need any help getting in?”

Maria unceremoniously dropped her hand, all business again. “No, I'm quite alright. Thank you.”

Sam circled around to the driver's side, sunk into the seat, and threw the car into drive. Forty-five minutes later, Maria was seated on the horribly noisy tissue paper that covers all medical tables, while Sam paced around the all-too-familiar waiting room in Burlington.

**

The x-rays indicated nothing was broken, although the doctor suspected from the swelling and Maria's inability to move her ankle certain directions that her patient was suffering a hairline fracture. She instructed her patient to use crutches and prescribed a boot for her to wear while the bone healed. “In two weeks you can transition to a walking boot, but in the immediate future, try to keep it elevated. That should help with the swelling.” Her tone brokered no argument, and Maria mutely nodded. When Maria asked how soon she could return to running, the doctor gave her a doubtful look and proposed Maria wait at least a month, going on to predict it would likely be six weeks before running was wise.

“Six weeks?!” Maria bellowed in the car on the way back to her house. “What the hell am I supposed to do for six weeks? I go stir crazy when I haven't run for six days!”

Sam attempted to placate her riled friend. “It's not that bad. You might enjoy a little R and R.”

Maria snorted. “Please. You try running a restaurant on crutches.”

“Well, that does sound challenging,” Sam admitted. “What if I helped you?”

Maria peered at her, a doubtful expression on her face. “You? How?”

“I dunno. I haven't the first clue about running a restaurant. Or, running at all. But I can walk, which is more than I can say for you right now. You can just sit someplace and instruct me.”

While Sam drove, Maria thought on her suggestion. The restaurant owner would likely need a fair amount of assistance while she was on crutches for the next two weeks. Besides, she pondered, it would be good for Sam to have something to focus her energies on other than her recovering mother. Maria sensed that while her friend might be reticent to engage in social scenarios, she thrived on learning new skills and throwing herself into fresh challenges, and the restaurant was nothing if not demanding. Once she concluded that she would be helping Sam at least as much as Sam would be helping her, she made her decision.

“Your offer has possibilities,” she responded, stroking her chin. “Where does Eva fit into all this?”

“Well, as you know, she's been improving steadily.” Sam slowed down to take a particularly sharp curve as they wended their way back to their cozy town. “I think she'd appreciate some time out of the house. She'd probably be happy to read in the café. She's likely well enough to stay by herself for short stints if Dolores agrees to check in on her a few times. I'm sure we can arrive at an arrangement that works for all involved.”

“Well then, you're hired, Samantha Latham.”

Sam gulped, wondering what exactly she'd gotten herself into.

As the car steadily made its way back to Stowe, late afternoon turned into evening and Maria filled her in on the structures of the restaurant, including how to check the inventory Brendon ordered, what veggies would need to be plucked from the garden that week, and how to oversee shipments of produce to the three restaurants Stowe Away's greenhouses supplied. “Most of the other tasks, like reviewing the schedule or generating payroll, I can do sitting down,” Maria informed her. “The real fun happens when problems arise and we have to troubleshoot. There's nothing I can really do to train you for that – we'll just have to wing it.”

Something dawned on Sam and her forehead wrinkled as she visibly tried to think through Maria's hours at the restaurant. Coming up empty, she flitted her eyes from the road to her passenger. “You're not at the restaurant all the time it's open, right? I mean, there's the salon and poker …” Sam trailed off.

“No, I'm not now. The first year was pretty rough, though,” Maria confessed. “I was there at least fourteen hours a day, six days a week. And even though we're closed on Mondays, I'd still be there half a day ordering inventory, negotiating rates with suppliers, and whatever else needed to be done. Hiring Brendon, and then some assistant managers, changed my life, and Pauly's, too. I no longer work shifts, and I trust that when I'm not at the restaurant it's in good hands. I'm still on call, and I like to go in a couple of times a day to make sure things are running smoothly. But Brendon freed me to maintain a flexible schedule, to tend my garden when I choose, and to think about big picture issues related to the restaurant's future.”

As she listened, Sam's eyes widened and she grew more and more impressed with the enterprising businesswoman beside her. They pulled into town, and Sam found herself regretting the impending end of their drive. A tad more sullenly than she'd wanted to, she asked where she ought to drop Maria off.

“Home, please,” Maria responded. “I texted Brendon about everything, and he's going to have one of the busboys drive Pauly home.”

And so all too soon Sam found herself in Maria's driveway, her passenger struggling to exit the car. Sam snatched the crutches from the backseat and brought them around to a now-standing Maria, who looked at them with distaste.

“I deplore crutches,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“Had much experience with them?” Sam asked.

Maria chuckled a little as she revealed, “I might have jumped off the roof when I was in grade school and my best friend dared me. At least then it was summer. I don't know about crutches on snow.” She gazed toward the house at the frozen path connecting the driveway to the house.

Sam thought about that for a moment. “You've enough trauma today. You'll have plenty of time to learn the intricacies of supports and snow.” And with that she swooped Maria up into her arms and kicked the car door shut, the crutches sliding down the passenger door until the side mirror trapped them. Somehow knowing she'd already transported the petite woman once imbued her with the confidence to do so again, and her arms shook less this time. Maria laughed at her impetuous friend, wrapping her arms around slightly trembling shoulders and resting her head against Sam's heart. Sam didn't remember the distance between the car and the house ever being so long, and she fumbled a bit with the front door, but managed to pull it open and duck inside. Eyes moving from the living room to the hallway the lead to the bedrooms, Sam asked gallantly, “where to, Madam?”

The pain meds and the comfort of Sam's arms had combined to cause Maria's eyes to droop. Before she could summon the wherewithal to answer, Sam strode down the hallway and into the master bedroom. She settled Maria into bed and, vowing to return promptly, hurried to the car to retrieve the crutches and the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. By the time she reentered Maria's room, the injured woman was dozing. Sam extracted the two bottles of medicine from her bag and lined them up on the nightstand next to the water. She stood and looked around for a moment before spotting a built-in bookcase on the far wall. She approached, her eyes rapidly scanning titles. Her glance lighted on a well-worn paperback of Love in the Time of Cholera and she pulled out the book and held it to her nose. Its soft pages smelled musky. She opened the front cover and discovered it was inscribed.

November 11, 2002

 

To our darling Maria,

 

May you never lose your thirst for reading and learning, and may you always be surrounded by tenderness and love. Happy birthday, Bookworm!

 

Love,

Mom and Dad

 

Sam quickly closed the book, feeling like she'd intruded on something private. She made a note that Maria's birthday was approaching and then crossed over to the bedside, depositing the book next to the medicine. She turned and gazed at the woman sleeping peacefully next to her. Maria's lips were slightly parted and her face reflected drug-induced relaxation. Leaning forward, Sam brushed her lips against Maria's warm forehead, murmuring “feel better” against soft skin. She closed the door partway as she retreated to her car, vowing to check on Maria in the morning.

**

And so the next few weeks found Eva seated at the bar of Stowe Away reading Harry Potter while Sam tried to stop Maria from hobbling around the restaurant against doctor's orders.

Finally, Sam planted her feet in the space between the bar and the door to the kitchen, crossed her arms, and glared. “You know, at this point, I should probably be offended.”

Maria turned around, one hand on the kitchen door, looking like a kid with her hand in the cookie jar.

“Offended? Why ever so?” Her sweet, innocent expression failed to have its desired effect, and Sam's stern stance didn't soften.

“You obviously don't think I'm capable of following your instructions, since you insist on doing everything yourself.”

Maria, who was never at a loss for words, fumbled around for a reply. “Um, habit?” she suggested weakly.

Sam exercised her much-practiced authoritative caregiver voice. “Sit. Now.”

Maria squared her shoulders, but nodded at the truth in Sam's lecture, and she allowed Sam to guide her to a stool adjacent to Eva's. “I've already checked the inventory, the kitchen staff has prep well in hand, and we're going to the greenhouses when Pauly and Brendon get back from picking up tonight's menus. If you'd like, I can bring you the schedule to review. Again.”

Maneuvering a spare stool so that Maria could elevate her ankle, Sam reflected that Maria's pride and self-sufficiency were both impressive and endearing. Still, she hoped to convince the independent woman that it was alright to ask for and receive help, and she longed to be the one Maria turned to, if only to repay her for the many kindnesses she had shown Sam.

After settling the restaurant owner, she leaned over and called to Eva, “Hey, Ma, how's Harry doing?”

Her mother looked up with the startled expression of a person just ripped from the world of a good book. “He's fine. Although why he dislikes that Snape so much is beyond me. And I really could do without all those snakes in the walls.”

Eva had been steadily making her way through Chamber of Secrets all morning. Sam wanted to ease her mother back into reading, and the first few books in the series were short enough, with simple enough writing and plot scenarios that Eva found them reasonably digestible. She took frequent breaks to rest her eyes and her still-recovering mind, but she seemed pleased with her ability to process fiction.

One hand on her back, Sam turned back to Maria. “How's about you two chat about who you think the heir of Slytherin is while I call the wine distributor about tomorrow's order. It'll be good for both of you.”

Maria looked sheepish as she assented. Sam drifted away to tend to various tasks around the front of house and her two charges turned toward one another.

“Well, it's obviously not Harry,” Eva pronounced with confidence.

“Why do you say that?” Maria prodded, gently. “He seems to think it might be.”

Eva tried and failed to come up with a better response than “I just know it's not.”

Maria, having always helped her brother with his homework, slipped into teacher mode. “Well, let's assess what we know. What attributes does Harry possess that makes him seem a likely candidate?”

Eva pondered this for a moment. “He can speak that snake language.”

“Yep, and who else could do that?”

“Voldemort. Voldemort can also speak that snake language, right?”

Maria looked aghast. “Eva!” she hissed. She grabbed her arm, looking around furtively. “You can't say his name!!”

Eva, who had thrown her hand over her heart when Maria first feigned fright, started to laugh. “Maria, dear, you scared me!”

Chuckling, Maria continued to play with her. “Well you scared me first! Around these parts, we call him He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

Across the restaurant from them, the front door opened and Pauly entered with a box of the evening's menus. He beaconed to Sam, and soon the two of them were hunched over a table whispering conspiratorially about surprising Maria for her birthday. Sam, who always kept a little notepad in her pocked, began scribbling out a guest list while Pauly counted off the Salon artists, the poker ladies, and the restaurant staff. Now and then Sam stole a glance at her mother and Maria, who were engaged in earnest conversation about Harry's prospects. Maria gestured emphatically, communicating as much with her hands as her words, as she explained that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's reign of terror was predicated primarily on racism, that he sought to create a world dominated by pure-blooded wizards. Her eyes sparkled as she basked in the thrill of literary dialogue. Maria never noticed the green eyes stealing glances at her. But every now and then she glanced over her shoulder at her brother and Sam, pouring over a notepad and giggling. She'd never seen her reticent friend giggle so much, but was pleased that the act opened up Sam's expression, inviting Pauly in past barriers she usual kept locked into place. Sam never noticed the penetrating brown eyes that continued to peak at her.

November 2008

When Maria awoke on November 11 th to a grey morning, the slightly purple sky threatening to snow, the first thing she thought of was the car crash that killed her parents, and she knew nightmares had claimed her sleep once again. She untucked her knees from her chest and rolled over to her back. A few deep breaths slowed her racing heart and helped her feel tall and strong and capable again. Something about the dreams left her consumed with feelings of helplessness and she always needed to remind herself she was a grown woman now, not a child protected from life's challenges by the unconditional love and support of her parents.

They had been a close family. Carlos had taught her how to make tamales and told her stories about growing up outside Mexico City before moving to Vermont to study with the Bread and Puppet Theater and eventually settling down to teach English and drama at Stowe High School. He had played catch with her in the backyard and taught her how to ride a bike. Sophie had braided her hair and sang her song and, as the owner of a small accounting firm, had instructed her on the finer points of running a business. The three of them helped Pauly through speech and physical therapy when he was very young, and Maria had been a strong advocate for his attending the Stowe public schools, promising to look after him during the day and assist him with homework in the evening.

She missed her parents every day. It had taken her a long time to adjust to a world without them, and it was a journey she conducted alone at night, after Pauly had gone to bed.

Noises from the kitchen brought her attention back to her immediate surroundings. She blinked a few times, swinging her legs from the side of her bed and glaring at the crutches propped against her nightstand. She's been walking around without them when no one was watching and frankly, she felt fine. She wondered if there might be someone in her kitchen who would perhaps chastise her for rushing her recovery, but she figured since Pauly knew better than to mess with her kitchen, the mystery chef was probably Brendon, and she was, after all, his boss.

She flexed her toes to work out the stiffness which had settled in overnight. Gingerly, she rotated her ankle, and was pleased that the movement caused noticeably less discomfort than the previous morning. She placed both feet on the ground and stood.

Well, happy birthday to me, she smiled. She surmised a little run might be in her near future.

Throwing a sweatshirt over her tank top and pulling some socks up underneath her pajama pants, she padded out the door and down the hallway. Halfway to the kitchen, a cacophony of smells assaulted her nose and she heard a string of expletives, followed by a crash. She steeled herself for the worst as she rounded the corner.

At the sight of Maria in pajamas with mussed hair and shock etched all over her face, Sam dropped the rolling pin she had been holding and then tripped on it, landing hard on her butt. Her eyes watered a bit as she threw her arms wide and smiled crookedly. "Um, happy birthday."

Maria's hand flew to her mouth as she struggled not to laugh. It was a losing battle, though, and pretty soon both women were howling, pointing at each other and mocking flour on cheeks and Miss Piggy on pajama pants. When Maria extended her hand to help Sam rise, Sam yanked her to the floor, a mixing bowl on the counter filled with fruit proving an inadequate anchor for her flailing arms. As Maria landed on top of Sam in a heap, squares of melon and slices of strawberry followed her, dousing both women. The now-empty bowl clattered to the floor.

“Shit, that was the only edible thing we had!” Sam sputtered through her laughter. Maria retrieved a cube of watermelon from Sam's lap and, after pondering her options, matter-of-factly tugged Sam's sweater away from her neck and dropped the morsel down her shirt.

"Cold! Ugh, so squishy,” Sam yelped, flapping and thrashing in vain attempts to keep the fruit away from her skin. Under the pressure of the sweater, Sam's clumsy hands, and Maria's tickling fingers, the watermelon exploded, covering Sam's chest with sticky pink juice which slowly seeped through the light blue cotton. Maria looked contrite for a moment, before Sam reached above her, located a weapon, and promptly deposited a tray of uncooked muffins upside down on Maria's head. The tray slid to the floor, leaving behind streaks of blueberry and batter across Maria's brown curls, her incredulous face, and her “Running is cheaper than therapy” sweatshirt. Unsure of what ammunition might be available to her, Maria simply lowered her head and thrust her caked hair into Sam's face.

Engulfed by curls and uncooked goo, Sam contemplated her options. Her strategizing was interrupted by Pauly, who, upon entering and taking one look at the mess above and below the counters, asked if they were going out for breakfast. Maria and Sam pulled back far enough to look at each other and then burst into another round of giggles.

**

“So what inspired your kitchen disaster this morning” Maria inquired when the three of them were settled into a booth of Stowe's only diner.

Once she had swallowed her mouthful of hash browns, Sam replied that she wanted to do something nice for the birthday girl. Like test her smoke alarm.

“You're shockingly inept in the kitchen,” Maria informed her. “Let's hope you're better at fixing people than breakfast.” Pauly nodded his agreement before returning to his strawberry milkshake, his reward for helping clean up the mound of dishes, burnt quiche, and smoothie which had exploded from the blender onto the wall and ceiling.

“I also figured every birthday girl wants someone she can tease mercilessly all day long,” Sam offered with a grin. “Speaking of which, what do you want to do for the rest of your special day?”

The glint in Maria's eyes made Sam wary. “You're going running with me.”

“And the hits just keep on coming,” Sam moaned. “Wouldn't you just be happier running on your own? I'll probably slow you down.”

“I don't want to push my ankle too far, too fast, so I'll run whatever pace you set.”

“Oh, how magnanimous.” Sam tried another angle. “How about I keep Pauly company for you while you run?”

Maria turned to her brother. “Hey bro, you don't need a babysitter while I run, do you?”

He shook his head, and when they both turned their attention to Sam, she knew she was trapped. “I don't suppose it would make any difference if I said I don't own running shoes?”

“You know, it's the craziest thing. They sell those in stores these days. And one can often procure all other necessary athletic accoutrement from the same establishment! This modern world we live in is just full of surprises!”

“Okay, okay. You win, birthday girl. But you should know that I keep score of these kinds of things, and a Latham always pays her debts.”

Maria quirked an eyebrow. “Like a Lannister?”

Sam nodded sheepishly.

Maria shook her head, grinning. “Fantasy nerd, huh? Guess we know what we'll be talking about while we pound the pavement.” Three hours later Sam, wearing running tights, Brooks cross-trainers, and a constant grimace, listened while Maria spouted off a theory about Jon Snow's parentage and ranted about how long it was taking George R. R. Martin to write the fifth book.

**

How people run in the summer without overheating, I'll never know , Sam thought, crouched over, her hand on her chest, gasping for air. Despite the snow on the ground and the chill on her skin, Sam didn't think it was possible for her to feel any hotter. She was mistaken. She took her hand off her chest and, her breath slowing slightly, stood up and noticed Maria stretching. Sam had been convinced for all three miles of their run that she was dying. Maria, however, had barely broken a sweat, and was currently bent double, her legs spread, touching the ground, and moaning softly as tense muscles relaxed. The view was too much for Sam's muddled brain, and she turned away, thinking briefly about the stamina this woman had and wondering if it transferred into other arenas.

The evening found the poker ladies, the salon artists, Stowe Away's waiters and cooks gathered in the restaurant, singing and toasting Maria. Someone busted out a portable karaoke machine and before long the place was in stitches as Brendon wailed out “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” and Kathy crooned to “Under the Sea.” As the singing and dancing continued, Sam managed to corner Maria for a moment alone. She shyly held out an envelope and whispered, “happy birthday.”

Maria's eyes sparkled. “Can I open it now, please,” she asked, her politeness betrayed by the hunger in her eyes. Sam nodded.

Eva had drawn the card, which featured an image of Hephe and Aphrodite eyeing a slice of frittata on a plate. The inscription inside thanked Maria for all that she'd given the Latham family. A folded piece of paper slipped from the card onto the floor, and both ladies bent to retrieve it at the same time, bumping heads. “We're having quite a day, huh?” Sam laughed, shaking her head.

“That klutziness of yours appears to be contagious. But what have we here?” The restaurant owner unfolded the document and as she read its contents her face exploded in a brilliant smile.

“Do you like it?” Sam asked a little proudly, already knowing the answer.

Maria pulled Sam into a tight hug, whispering in her ear, “oh Sam, it's perfect.”

“Will you tell me all about it afterward?” she asked into fragrant curls.

Maria pulled back, and when their eyes locked Sam noticed Maria's eyes were glistening. “Absofuckinglutely.” She drew Sam closer and her warm lips graced Sam's cheek. “Thank you.”

“Sorry to break up this little tete-a-tete, but it's time for cake.” Brandi's hands were on her hips and the irritation in her voice was clear. Maria rolled her eyes, but nevertheless turned to follow her back to the party. After the singing, Brendon drifted over to Sam and asked what she'd given Maria, whom he pronounced “giddy over her present.”

“Next week she'll be a guest chef at Amanda Macy's restaurant in Boston.”

“No! THE Amanda Macy? Wow, I've never even dined there, and Maria gets to hang out in the kitchen? Jesus. Did you know the New York Times just dubbed it the eighth best restaurant in the country?” Brendon nodded his head at Sam, clearly impressed. “Well done, Ms. Latham. Well done indeed.”

Later, after all but the poker ladies, a couple of waitresses, and Brendon had departed, Brandi suggested forming a kissing line to shower the birthday girl with affection. Just as Kathy grabbed Sam's shoulders and began to thrust her toward the end of the line, Sam's cell phone rang. The screen glowed “Natalie Romano,” and Sam ducked outside the restaurant to take the call.

A little tipsy, Maria basked in the smooches, most of which were on her cheek (Brendon, as a big wet joke, and Brandi, too sincerely for comfort, were the two exceptions). But when the line had ended and she noted Sam's absence, she turned disappointed eyes toward the restaurant door, through which she could see Sam grinning as she chatted away happily to someone else.

November 2008

“Well good, I'm glad to hear you're living in the world a little more.”

“I'd hardly call Stowe the world, but yes, I'm adjusting.”

“Oh Sam, when are you going to ditch this attitude?” Natalie pushed her. “Stowe is every bit as much The World as any other place.”

“You can't believe that. And if you do, it's only because you haven't been here in so long. You'll change your tune next week.”

“Can't wait! One sec.” Sam listened as Natalie's muffled voice ordered, “double shot to go and a raspberry scone, please.” The lonely woman in Vermont imagined her best friend in Café Trieste juggling her phone, her wallet, and her change in front of a line of under-caffeinated patrons tapped their feet awaiting their turn.

Most of their phone conversations since Natalie's return to the States had centered on stories from Japan and Natalie's decision to postpone applying for law school. Sam hadn't wanted to share the events of her recent life, which she felt must be uninteresting to her more worldly friend. Finally Natalie had put her foot down, flatly refusing to say another word until Sam revealed in detail the goings on in Stowe. Sam was beyond pleased that they seemed to have forged a tradition of spending Turkey Day together in Vermont, and was already planning on taking her best friend on scenic hikes and tours of the Magic Hat brewery and the Ben and Jerry's creamery. She attempted to deflect Natalie's focus by describing what she had planned for her friend's upcoming visit, but Natalie wouldn't be dissuaded. Defeated, Sam found herself sharing stories about Eva's art and her overall progress, the work she'd seen and heard at the salon, and Pauly's indefatigable interest in science. As she waited for the barista to complete Natalie's order, she mentally reviewed the tales she had shared with Natalie, wondering nervously how they might sound to a woman who never stayed in once place, literally and metaphorically, for very long. She vowed to change the subject.


“Sorry about that,” Natalie said, turning her attention from the café back to her phone companion.

“No problem. So are you ready for classes to start again?”

“Ugh, I guess. I'm kind of over Public Policy. There are so many policy issues that need to be addressed, so many populations that are struggling, but nothing ever gets done. There's so much bureaucracy that it makes everyone pessimistic, and then the problems get worse, which makes people even more cynical, and it's a horrible cycle. Besides, policy might be a little to ‘real' for me, you know.”

“Too real? And you were thinking about law school?” Sam responded, wryly.

“That's why I decided against it. My dad has a friend who lives in the Spanish countryside and I think I'm going to work on his farm next year and concentrate on my music.”

“Spain?” Sam sputtered in disbelief.

“Eh, why not,” came Natalie's somewhat dismissive reply.

Why not indeed. “Maybe because you don't want to be that far away from me,” Sam thought. “Maybe because you want to get an actual job and figure your shit out and live a normal life for once.” The dead air filled with tension as Sam struggled to generate any sort of comeback that wouldn't leave her unsatisfied and Natalie angry.

Saving Sam from herself, Natalie broke the silence. “So tell me more about this boy. Does he live at home?”

As thoughts of Pauly bent over a sketchpad replaced the growing frustration in Sam's mind, she managed a smile. “Indeed he does, with his sister Maria. Their parents died a few years ago in a car crash. She and I graduated together, actually, although I never really paid much attention to her.”

“As I understand it, if it wasn't a poem, a pipette, or a protozoa, you ignored it. It's a wonder you cultivated any social skills at all.”

“Well, let's not oversell my ability to work a room.”

“Sounds like you and Maria share a similar situation. You're both caregivers.”

“Yeah, she's taken me under her wing, so to speak. She hosts a poker party every Sunday night.”

“Sam, Dear, I know your father's helping you out financially, but that doesn't mean you should throw away money so carelessly.”

“What makes you think I don't win?”

“Subterfuge ranks up there with jet skiing on the list of things you're good at.”

“Point taken. Anyway, the uh, women who play, they're all nice.”

“Mmm hmm. And?”

“And what?”

“You tell me. You always stammer when you're holding something back. Just one of your many tells, Kenny Rogers. Clearly you never count your money when you're sitting at the table simply because there isn't any.”

“Well, they're all lesbians,” Sam mentioned, sheepishly.

“Oh? Are they cute?”

Briefly San hoped Natalie would be pierced by the sharp sting of jealousy, before she remembered that even if she wanted Sam, the Californian wasn't the jealous type. “Not really. There are six of us. Two are a couple, one's a gym teacher who could bench press me and one's always smacking gum and fawning over Maria.”

“Seems to me you left one out,” came Natalie's reply.

“Nope, that's everyone.”

“Maria, you bone head,” Natalie chided.

“Oh. Yeah, she's cute, if you like curvy Latinas with flawless skin, rich curly hair, and brown eyes that will drown you.” Sam reflected a moment. “You'd go for her, I'm sure.” A hint of bitterness laced Sam's tone.

“Why's that?”

“I don't know, you just would,” Sam mumbled inarticulately. What she didn't say was that of course it would be her luck that the two women in her life who kept her sane would go for each other, thereby driving her mad with jealousy.

“Well, tell me something about her that doesn't involve her appearance.”

“You know what surprises me most about her is how well-read and smart she is for a woman who didn't go to college.”

“You know, for someone who bemoans how narrow-minded small town America can be, you certainly have an oversimplified definition of what counts as smart.”

Appropriately chastened, Sam softly admitted, “I know. I'm working on it. Anyway, she's charming and clever and although she's had a lot to deal with, she's pretty in control of her life. She's figured out how to want what she's got.”

“Or how to get what she wants.”

“Well, one of the two. It was actually her idea for Eva to start drawing again. I don't know why I didn't think of it.”

“You had a lot on your plate, Sam. Sometimes we need an outsider's perspective.”

“True story,” Sam admitted.

“So, let's recap. She oversees an artist salon, she's helped your Mom get reacquainted with art, and she's introduced you to the town lesbians and convinced you to gamble. Ambitious, with good execution. Not bad for only a couple of months.”

“Oh. Um, we're also running together.”

Three thousand miles away, Natalie choked on her espresso. “I'm sorry, could you repeat that? I was distracted by all the pork in the trees.”

“Ah, Eleanor, the Aquitaine might be yours when pigs fly, but I am indeed engaging in aerobic exercise.”

“How's that working out for you?” Natalie asked, curiously.

“Jury's still out.”

“Seems like you two spend a lot of time together,” Natalie asked with a hint of suggestiveness.

“Not much else to do here,” Sam deflected.

“Well, I want to meet her.” Natalie's tone brokered no debate, and Sam sighed, marveling at her ability to get herself into awkward and potentially painful situations.

“Of course you do. Fine. You can meet her. There's not much else to do in this town anyway.”

And just like that, Sam would be a third wheel. Again.

**

“How come when I talk, you two drink?”

“We also drink when you dance.”

“And sing.”

Sam wasn't sure if she liked Natalie and Maria banding together to tease her. Actually, on second thought, she knew for certain she didn't like it. The newly-introduced women were lounging on a couch in Maria's basement while Sam held forth on the dance floor. They were all three sheets to the wind and none of them seemed to mind. Pauly and Eva were drawing together at Sam's place, chaperoned by Dolores, and Sam was giddy with freedom and Natalie's presence. For the past thirty minutes, Sam had alternated between gyrating to the Lady Gaga songs playing in the background and expressing what she knew were over-wrought opinions about politics and the election that had just happened.

“I'm happy to see your vocabulary hasn't atrophied since college. Maria, have you ever heard someone refer to a television as an ‘omnipresent simulacrum for the precipitous deterioration of discourse and unremitting degeneration of the American intellect?'”

“Nope. And I listen to NPR.”

“Is your problem with my style of articulation or the content of my assertions?” Sam inquired, twirling a bit to “Poker Face.” “I love this song!”

“How does she transition so seamlessly between highbrow and low brow?” Maria asked the Californian.

“It's a long-cultivated skill.”

Sam continued, ignoring them. “Fundamentally, Sarah Palin cannot represent politically empowered women in this country because she doesn't want female emancipation from the patriarchy, with its attendant responsibilities. The harm she causes American women is dual: with her sexy librarian look, she reifies the position of women as objects for the male gaze and surveillance of the law, while simultaneously masquerading as a woman who has escaped the very structures she in fact reinforces. By suggesting that she proves women have arrived at the true political power, those who support her seek to silence the growing threat to the entrenched order of gender inequality. ‘I'm not lyin, I'm just stunning with my love, glue-gunnin!'” Sam twirled again.

Natalie and Maria shared a smirk before announcing together, “refills!” and pouring the last of the shiraz into their wine glasses.

While the two women swirled the red liquid in their goblets, Twinkle Toes inquired from the dance floor, “what's that even mean, anyway? “Stunning with my love glue-gunnin?'”

“You mean she can explain Sarah Palin in terms of the male gaze but she finds Lady Gaga inscrutable?” Maria asked Natalie.

“We all have our strengths,” Sam called out from her position on the dance floor. “And I seem to recall you both excel at dancing. I didn't realize I was going to be doing a private rendition of ‘Dancing with Myself' here.”

Natalie chose that moment to slip off her heels. “My puppies are tired.” While she might have turned her attention away from the Public Policy degree she was still pursuing, she had continued dressing the part. Tonight she wore a starched evergreen shirt tucked into a charcoal pencil skirt with pointy-toed stilettos. Sam had never seen her hair in a bun before.

Sam pondered for a moment the differences between the gorgeous women staring at her. Both were warm and kind and intuitive. Natalie was nearly as skinny today as when Sam had first seen her that fateful day their Residential College group gathered in the common room. She might be without direction, but her green eyes sparkled with unbridled joy, her laugh came easily, and she fit seamlessly into any situation she found herself. Part of her allure, Sam realized, came from having lived a life surrounded by comfort and love. She saw the best in everyone, and was quick to bestow her affections. Maria, in a red-and-black flower print halter dress that stopped mid-thigh, looked sophisticated, the soft cotton hugging womanly curves. She radiated the kind of confidence that came from life experience and the direction her couch companion distinctly lacked. She might not have same educational pedigree, but she was whip-smart. Her eyes, however, indicated a life punctuated by loss, responsibility, and challenge. Her laugh came more slowly, which made its deep melodic sound rewarding. She possessed a strength which mingled incongruously, appealingly, with her vulnerability.

A surge of love for both women flooded through Sam.

“Sam, dear, why don't you come sit down?” Maria suggested. “You're making me dizzy.”

Trying to mask her always-obvious thoughts, Sam composed her face into a pout. “You two are no fun.” Still, she complied, sinking into a chair across from the loveseat.

The ladies on the couch turned to each other. “I think you're fun, Natalie.”

“The feeling is mutual, Maria.”

“Oh brother” was all Sam could muster.

Suddenly Natalie seemed almost giddy. “Ooh, wanna play a game?”

“What kind of game?” Sam asked, warily.

“How about ‘Two Truths and a Lie?'” came Natalie's swift reply.

“God, I haven't played that since high school,” Maria mused. “Sure, I'm game. Sam?”

“Good grief,” Sam rolled her eyes.

“Well, Charlie Brown, would you rather we charge you 5 cents for psychiatric help?” Natalie teased.

“Ooh, or we could set up a kissing both!” Now Maria's giddiness matched Natalie's.

“Either way, I'm taking my football and going home unless you play along,” Natalie politely informed her best friend.

Throwing up her hands in defeat, Sam assented.

Maria took the reins. “Actually, I have a better idea. We each take a turn telling someone else here something we believe is true about her. If the questioner is right, the other person drinks, and vice versa.”

“Whatever, you two are juvenile either way,” Sam chided halfheartedly.

Natalie dubbed her “buzz kill,” and turned her attention to Maria. “You lost your virginity at 16.”

“Drink,” came Maria's succinct reply. “Ok, my turn. You think Yoga solves all your health problems.”

Natalie grinned broadly and took a healthy gulp of her wine before turning her attention to Sam. “Your turn.”

“You still have no idea what you want to do with your life,” Sam threw at the blonde, who raised her glass in a small salute to her companions before drinking for a third time.

“Sam. There are things about Stowe that you kind of secretly like,” Natalie prodded her friend.

Slowing down the pace of the game considerably, Sam thought for a long time, gazing at her fingers as they wrapped around her wine glass. Finally, her shoulders shrugged slightly and she tipped back her glass.

The baton now passed to Maria and the Latina peered at the scientist. “You've stopped your nightly forays to Burlington.”

Paling slightly, Sam attacked her wine a little too enthusiastically, a trickle of it sliding down her chin before she brushed it away.

Confused, Natalie interjected, “wait, I don't know what that means. Can we ask follow-up questions?”

“Your game, your rules,” Sam returned, gruffly.

Natalie nodded, triumphantly. “Fine, the third party gets to ask a single follow-up question. What's in Burlington?”

When Sam failed to come up with a reply, her eyes glued to the floor, Maria filled in, “sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Our little Sam tried to become a bad girl. Didn't suit her.”

“No, I can't imagine it did,” Natalie agreed. The two women gazed fondly at Sam, who evidently found the wood grain on the flooring fascinating.

“Sam, it's your turn,” Maria prodded gently.

The tension of the situation was getting to the reticent would-be doctor, who turned her focus to Natalie and challenged bitterly, “you'll never settle down.”

Natalie's unwavering gaze disconcerted Sam, who once again looked away. “Drink,” Natalie said, quietly. “My turn. Sam, you've never really been in love.”

Disbelief all over her face, Sam snorted and instructed her tormentor to drink. Natalie shook her head. “I know you, Samantha Latham, and while you may think you have been in love, you haven't. Drink.” The two women stared at each other, neither one willing to back down. It occurred to Sam in that moment that their one encounter had not been making love, as she'd always thought, but was just another sexual liaison for Natalie. Her cheeks burned as she cast back to that night and the playfulness, and the frenzied touching, and the complete lack of shared meaningful glances and words of promise.

The situation suddenly thrown in stark relief, Maria paled. Seconds ticked away with no movement on anyone's part. Finally Maria stood. “Sam, dear, will you help me pick out some dessert for us all?” She placed her hand on Sam's back and gently guided her away from the sitting room, up the stairs, and into the full kitchen of her house. The taller women trembled underneath her hand, her breathing irregular.

When the pair arrived in the kitchen, Sam walked straight to the sink, placing both hands on the rim and leaning heavily on it. Maria gave her some space for a minute, bustling about in the pantry and fridge. Finally she approached her distraught friend, leaning her left hip on the rim of the sink.

“You're waiting for her.” It wasn't a question.

“Yes.” Sam stared straight ahead.

“And she doesn't want you.”

Sam stiffened. “It's more complicated than that.”

“Is it? I don't think so.” Her voice was low, but firm. “If you want her and she doesn't want you, it's a toss-up who's the bigger fool.”

Sam turned and studied her face. Maria's features bespoke a strange combination of compassion and fire. Suddenly Sam felt tired, worn down and empty. Maria reached out and gently tucked Sam's hair behind her ear. “Party's over now, I think. Do you want her to stay here tonight?”

“No, thanks. We can manage. We've managed like this for years. Don't see why tonight should be any different.”

“Well, Dear, that's up to you.”

“No, it's really not. It's always been up to her.”

“And there's where you're very wrong. But I suspect you'll learn that when you're ready. Why don't you go say goodnight to Pauly. He's in his room reading.”

Sam nodded and, turning, walked down the hall. Shaking her head, Maria descended the stairs.

“I'm sorry about that, Maria,” Natalie offered, somewhat abashed.

Her hostess sank heavily onto the other half of the sofa. “It's none of my business, really.”

Natalie angled her body toward her. “You'd like it to be, though, wouldn't you?”

Maria smiled enigmatically. “We'll see.”

“You're good for her.”

“So are you, in your own way. There's no bad guy here.”

“I feel like the bad guy,” Natalie confessed.

Maria patted her leg, reassuringly. “It's not your fault.”

“I think you're the only one who believes that,” Natalie said, sadly. “Maybe it was a mistake to come here.”

“No. She needs you. She just needs you differently than she thinks.”

Natalie waved her hand dismissively. “I don't think you can truly be in love with someone if she doesn't love you back. I think you can love deeply, and differently, but I feel like love has to be met with equal love to achieve ‘in love' status. Sam disagrees.” After a moment of reflection, she continued. “I wonder who bears the responsibility for unrequited love? The one who loves, the one who doesn't, or the gods for playing with us.”

“Perhaps all of the above.”

“Perhaps.” Both women sighed, reclining on the couch together, smiling at one another affectionately.

Sighing with resignation, Natalie murmured, “I suppose I should go.”

“I suppose you should.”

“Will I see you again before I leave?” Natalie asked, hopefully, and a little sadly.

“I'd like that, but I don't think it's up to us.” They rose, and embraced each other warmly.

“Take care of her, please,” Natalie said, heavily.

Maria's warm features softened, some of the worry easing from her as she reflected that it might indeed within her power to take care of Samantha. “Of course. Take care of yourself.”

And with that, they headed upstairs.

February 2009

“There's no way those are the words.”

“Samantha, I swear to you the true parenthetical title is ‘Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin.'”

“Where's your laptop? I'm looking this up.”

“Suit yourself, but I'd rather be dancing.” Maria's heals clicked on the dance floor as she crooned along. “Youth and truth are makin' love, dig it for a starter, now!”

Sam smiled at Maria's laptop wallpaper, a photo of Pauly wrestling in the grass with Zeus. While she Googled, Maria changed her dance style to accommodate the strains of “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” swaying her hips and snapping. Sam grunted as she realized Sly and the Family Stone had indeed spelled the subtitle to “Thank You” phonetically. Sort of. “You were right,” she mumbled.

Maria sashayed over to her and, removing the Dell from Sam's lap, grabbed the brunette's hands and pulled her up to the dance floor. She tossed her arms loosely around Sam's neck and grinned at her. “Wasn't the first time. Won't be the last. Get used to it, Baby.” Sam rolled her eyes and tried to weasel her way off the hardwood and onto the much safer Berber.

Maria wasn't having it. “Sam, dear, you need to let loose, and not just because you're tipsy and Natalie's here.” She twirled Sam clockwise, then counterclockwise, then back again until Sam felt the room spin.

“You want my stomach to let loose?”

“Ok, Grinch, why don't you play DJ. Find something you'll dance to.”

Samantha made her way over to the record player in the corner and leafed through the vinyls. She selected Janus, and soon the two of them were jumping around shouting “Take it! Take another little piece of my heart now, baby!” Maria grabbed Sam and threw their bodies into a rigorous tango, than a cha-cha, the two reveling in the incongruity between their dance moves and the beat Janus was laying out. When the song ended they fell into each other's arms, breathless and laughing.

Maria began to pull away, but Sam reached out and tucked an errant black curl behind Maria's ear, gazing at her intently. Maria's eyebrows furrowed in confusion when Sam snaked her hand around to the back of Maria's head and began pulling the shorter woman toward her. As Sam's eyes began to close in advance of kissing her friend, Maria shoved her away.

“What the hell do you think you're doing?!”

“What? I thought… wait, Maria, I thought you … I thought you wanted this.”

Maria responded softly, “I do,” but made no move to close the distance between them.

Sam took a hesitant step toward Maria. “Then what's the problem?”

Backing up, Maria shook her head. “Not like this. This isn't what I want from you.”

Sam felt hazy all of a sudden, as though she weren't sure which way was up. “What? What do you want from me?”

Maria turned and walked to the bar, putting her hands on the back of a stool. Sam's eyes bored into her back, watching her shoulders rise and fall with her breath. A full minute passed in silence. When Maria turned back around, her eyes flashed. Her voice low, she began, “everything. I want all of you.” She advanced very, very slowly on a stunned Sam. “You're right, I want to kiss you, touch you, taste you. I want to feel you quake beneath me. I want your sweat all over my body.” She stood toe to toe with the taller woman now, and leaning forward, her lips a whisper away from the taller woman's ear, she breathed, “I want to throw you against a wall and fuck you until you scream.” She pulled back, her eyes riveted to Sam's green ones. “I'm in love with you, Samantha Latham. I want to make love to you seventeen different ways until you shatter into a million pieces only I can put back together. I want you when you're an arrogant asshole doctor and when you're a vulnerable mess. I want the best and the worst of you, and I won't settle for anything less.” Maria smiled softly, and extending her hand, caressed the taller woman's cheek. “But you haven't gotten the wooden-headed Ms. Romano out of your head. You let me know when you're free of her.”

Sam could only blink as Maria pivoted and walked toward the stairs. Her chest heaving, the scientist became very aware of how loud her breath was. She could barely hear Maria throw over her shoulder, “you know how to let yourself out” as she ascended the stairs.

Sam groped for a place to sit, finally managing to drop her ass on a barstool. She stared around the rec room, unseeing, the past few minutes on replay in her head. She swallowed and realized her throat was dry. Forcing herself to focus, she scanned the offerings behind the bar, settling on a bottle of scotch. She tripped over her stool, stumbling to the other side of the bar. Knowing she was alone in the house now, she skipped the glass, wrapping her lips around the bottle and throwing her head back. The liquid seared her insides all the way to her stomach, and she came up coughing with watery eyes. At least now she could see straight. Funny, she'd always been told alcohol had the reverse effect. She laughed at that, since she couldn't laugh at anything else.

**

Finally alone that night, after having tucked Eva in, Sam poured herself a tumbler of scotch. She wondered why she was bothering with the glass in the privacy of her own home when she overlooked that courtesy at Maria's house. Downing the first glass quickly, she poured another and reminded herself that the golden liquid was supposed to be sipped, savored.

She began her nightly ritual of wondering what Natalie was doing at that very moment. Sometimes these imaginings brought up the familiar, well-loved ache of longing and loss; sometimes they inspired Sam to laugh at Natalie's hypothetical antics; and sometimes they turned NC-17. Tonight, however, instead of fantasizing, Sam found herself reliving the night, a mere week after Natalie had refused her, when Natalie had finally, thoroughly broken her heart.

Natalie sat on her futon, the book she had been reading cast aside on the floor. One knee was drawn up to her chest, her arms around her shin. Sam stood just inside the door, the air between them so thick neither could move.

 

“You told me you didn't want a relationship with anyone,” Sam sputtered. “You . . .” she swallowed, “you fucking lied to me.”

 

“No, all I said was I wasn't ready for a relationship. I meant one with you.”

 

“So, what, you're ready to date whoever else crawls into your bed in the middle of the night and … screws you, but not someone who loves you?”

 

“Don't be vulgar, Sam. You're bad at it, and it doesn't become you.” Natalie sighed heavily and ran her hand through her hair. “I can't do this with you . I can't love you the way you want me to. Not right now. Maybe not ever. I'm not ready to be married at twenty. April is sweet and charming and we have fun together. Whatever our relationship is, it's easy.”

 

“Ok, so, you get to sow your wild oats, and, what, I'll just wait until you're ready to settle down?”

 

“I don't expect you to wait for me, Sam. But I'm not ready right now. I'm just not. I might not ever be. It wouldn't be good for either of us.”

 

“Don't presume you know what's good for me,” Sam spat.

 

They stared at each other in silence until Natalie looked away. “I have an essay to write.”

 

“I hope she's a good lay,” Sam hurled at her, spinning around and barreling out the door. She never heard Natalie's quiet sobs as both their hearts broke that night.

Despite Natalie's comments, Sam knew she'd always been waiting for her mercurial friend to be ready for her. There was so much love between them, how could they not end up together? But Maria's words haunted her. She had, of course, settled for less of Natalie than she wanted. Now, confronted with Maria's words, she wondered if she had ruined her chance with Natalie by sleeping with her before getting some kind of commitment out of her. She downed the rest of the scotch, savoring be damned, and carried the bottle to her room, slamming the door as loudly as she dared with Eva sleeping down the hall.

March 2008

Sam and Eva walked down Main Street together, Eva's arm linked through her daughter's. The day was unseasonably warm, the sun having finally broken through the blanket of grey clouds that had dominated the sky since November. Main Street, Sam had come to appreciate, had a quiet charm to it. They passed the dance academy where Sam had stumbled through ballet, tap, and jazz as an adolescent. The converted farmhouse where Sam's father had run his clinic before leaving for D.C. now supported a small law office. A tiny candy store enticed them from their stroll, and they reemerged loaded with malt balls, turtles, and suckers. Eva, as was typical these days, was quiet. Sam found that her formerly loquacious mother rarely initiated conversation now, although she grew more and more responsive with each passing month.

But these moments of quiet companionship differed dramatically from her pre-aneurysm bouts with depression. Then, her silences screamed pain and torment, and Sam feared saying the wrong thing, just as she feared saying nothing.

The changes in Eva still floored Sam. She no longer suffered crippling attacks, and she was able to work every day. Previously, Eva either spent entire days in the studio during which she neither talked nor ate, or she couldn't bring herself to even open the door linking her workspace to the kitchen. Now she spent a few hours each morning painting, drawing, or sewing, before she expended her small store of energy and needed to rest. She had achieved the moderation that had always eluded her. She remained detached, but in a different way. Her barriers weren't consciously imposed now, and she didn't seem to be intentionally holding the world at a distance. She made an effort now in a way Sam had never seen her do.

And that was partly of the tragedy of it all, Sam found. The shift in Eva opened new facets of her personality even while it closed others. Eva continued to be limited in her ability to process the world, but trying to draw, to engage, to live in the world no longer filled her with anxiety and despair.

Sam wasn't proud of the fact that she sympathized with this Eva more. She wished she could say her present compassion was born of age and maturity, but she feared it was simply a product of the pervasive bias against mental illness which she had internalized. Reflecting on her mother's situation and the response from Stowe residents, Sam determined that US culture dealt much better with physical limitations than chemical.

She had never been interested in psychiatry before, finding the combination of medicine and psychology too close to home. The changes in her mother's mind, however, fascinated her, and she sometimes imagined herself moving from cancer research to brain science.

As the pair meandered down the salted sidewalk, Sam reflected back on the day Maria convinced her to reapply to M.D./Ph.D. programs. Her stomach churned, as it did every time she thought of the woman who had opened her eyes to so much, who had quietly taken such good care of her, who professed to be in love with her.

Sam vacillated between thinking Maria hadn't really meant it and wondering why she didn't feel the same depth of love back. This train of thought inevitably led her back to Natalie.

Something about Maria's candid admission coupled with her rejection of Sam's casual advance illuminated Sam's situation with Natalie. Sam should never have given in to her best friend that day when Natalie pounced on her. Yet the shame which burned Sam's cheeks when she thought of how insensitive her behavior was toward Maria in turn sparked anger and resentment toward Natalie. It hadn't been only her responsibility to respect the boundary of their friendship. Both of them should have known better than to give in that day almost two years ago.

Sam had studiously avoided Maria for the past few weeks. They had run into one another a couple of times in the produce section of the market, and once at the movie theater when Sam took Eva to see Coraline . Maria and Brandi were headed into Sunshine Cleaning . Pangs of regret distracted Sam during the entire movie as she imagined how close the two women in the other theater might be sitting, how their thighs might be touching, how they might be holding hands. If anyone had asked Sam what she thought of the pair, she would have answered that Brandi, with her bubblegum smile and her complete lack of depth, seemed a poor match for the complex, intelligent, beautiful entrepreneur.

No one asked Sam.

Mother and daughter stopped to exchange pleasantries with the principle of Stowe High School, who eagerly relived some of Sam's prouder moments from senior year. His thorough memory, at least concerning the awards Sam had garnered during graduation season, impressed both women. He heavily informed them that no one from SHS had attended a college of the caliber of Yale since the brilliant Samantha Latham, and he proudly threw his arm around her shoulders as he dubbed her a once-in-a-lifetime student.

Sam generally found such encounters embarrassing, and, since she'd move back, demoralizing. Something about the sunshine, perhaps, or the sincerity with which the compliment was bestowed, or the connection she felt to her mom these days, mitigated her ordinary agitation. She received the praise graciously and without regret for what she'd given up to return. She flashed him a brilliant smile and thanked him for his guidance when she was considering which colleges to apply to.

As they wended their way down the street, Sam's steps felt lighter and her posture seemed taller. Eva leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Sam smiled a slow, tender smile at her. “What was that for?”

“For you,” Eva simply said and they crossed the street.

As they made their way down the block, Sam cast around her psyche searching for the ever-present, nagging need to prove herself to herself, her parents, and this one-horse town. She discovered it missing. Whatever hole it might have left behind was now filled by affection for specific people, for the simplicity that accompanies appreciating today and not waiting for tomorrow, for the comfort of knowing she had in many ways already succeeded. She still intended to have a brilliant career as a medical researcher, to make an impact on the larger world, to use her talents to the best of her ability. But thoughts of her career lacked the urgency that formerly left her breathless, lacked the imperative she imposed on herself to be the best, the most impressive, somebody truly special. Instead, she found herself possessed of a genuine enthusiasm for what tomorrow might bring, and a quiet awareness that there were many paths toward success. She grabbed her mom's hand and, studying the fragile visage which had been broken and pieced back together so many times it should have been painted by Picasso, marveled at the smooth lines and quiet concentration she found there. Special, Sam understood after nearly a year in Stowe, came in many packages.

And so when she noticed a dark-haired man emerge from the barber shop half a block ahead of them and begin walking away, she took a deep breath and called out to him. “Pauly! Wait up!” When they were side by side, and she had complimented him on his new haircut, she asked what she had been wondering for weeks. “How's your sister?”

April 2009

It had been a year. The doctors all said that a patient who had suffered brain damage would be at ninety per cent of their total recovery twelve months after the initial incident. At this point, Eva could walk and generally physically care for herself, although she would often forget to eat unless someone placed food in front of her. She remained physically weak, but would go for two-mile walks if properly encouraged and accompanied. She could read or play games, but only for brief periods of time before she tired. She painted and drew, but other art genres such as quilting and sculpture proved too taxing. Certain life skills such as paying bills or cleaning failed to occur to Eva as tasks which might require her attention. She had retained her sweet nature and sharp tongue, both of which surfaced inconsistently but filled Sam with joy.

The changes in Sam's life no longer surprised her when she reflected back on them. Slowly, steadily, she had acclimated to life in Vermont.

And slowly, steadily, the intensity of feeling Natalie inspired in her had abated and shifted. She no longer resented Natalie's suitors, or her friend's inability to ascertain what she wanted. The distance, Sam somewhat grudgingly admitted, had transformed her almost painful love for Natalie into warm affection, a more equal feeling shared by the two women and marked by Sam's newfound confidence in herself. When Sam woke in the morning, the first person she thought of was no longer her mercurial one-time lover.

Instead, the images that swam before Sam in the space between asleep and awake were of dark, curly hair and endless brown eyes and soft curves that she longed to caress. Sam found herself wondering at all hours of the day or night what Maria was doing in that moment, and who she was doing it with, and if she felt happy.

May 2009

Sam couldn't believe it. After all this time, Dolores was getting married. And to the mailman, to boot. The septuagenarian had been single all Sam's life, and the scientist had no idea she was even serious about the short, stocky USPS employee with the kind hazel eyes. Stowe was atwitter with gossip and excitement which, despite herself, Sam found infectious. She and Eva got manicures (Eva selected red and Sam chose clear polish) and heard all about the flower arrangements. Their haircuts were accompanied by speculation about the honeymoon. During a trip to the grocery store they learned that the choir, band, and orchestra directors from the high school were banding together to play oldies during the reception. Sam noted with a chuckle that the grocer who contrived that pun was inordinately pleased with herself.

Sam solicited Jamie and Jenny's help outfitting herself and her mother. They settled on a sleek grey sheath for Eva and a feminine white suit for Sam, complete with white mules and red and silver jewelry. When she asked the couple if they knew what Maria and Pauly were wearing, she was met with wry grins, Jamie taunting, “guess you'll have to wait and see.”

Sam's imagination meandered with that instruction, but it hardly prepared her. The petite restaurant owner was draped in slinky red fabric that clung to her every curve and was cut down to reveal sinfully perfect breasts and cut up to bear muscular olive thighs.

Pauly looked dashing in a navy-blue suit with a white button down. He wore a red rose in his lapel which, when he saw Sam, he offered to her with a little bow. She kissed his cheek and slipped the flower behind her ear, which pleased Pauly immensely. Later, during the ceremony, their eyes met across the aisle when Sam had removed the rose and was smelling it. Pauly winked at her, a skill Sam had never quite mastered, and she barely stifled her giggle.

**

“Tell it like it is” by the Neville Brothers crooned from the speakers as the band went on break, and the pace of the dance floor slowed instantly. The wedding had been a short but sweet affair, and the reception had been in full swing for over an hour. Unable to restrain herself any longer, Sam discovered her low-heeled shoes carrying her toward Maria, who was seated at a circular table chatting casually with some of Stowe Away's employees. “Maria?” she asked softly. “May I have this dance?”

Startled eyes turned toward her, then warmed as soft fingers found their way in between hers. The tall, formerly shy woman who had thought she was better than everything in this town led the entrepreneur who had opened her eyes to the middle of the dance floor. They eased into each other, Maria's head resting on Sam's shoulder, her arms draped loosely around the taller woman's neck, Sam's hands resting lightly on the small of Maria's back. They swayed comfortably. Before long they were both humming, then Maria's sweet, low voice softly vibrated the lyrics into Sam's chest. Sam found herself melting against the sound and the warm supple body in her arms, and she tightened her hold. Resting her cheek against dark curls, she began to sing along with her companion, but faltered when she started to attend to the words she was singing. She pulled back a bit and, sliding her index finger under Maria's chin, guided her head away from her chest so the women could look at each other. Sam felt her temperature slowly rise at the intensity she collided with in those deep brown eyes. Maria whispered, “deep down inside me, I believe you love me,” and Sam joined her for the next line, “forget your foolish pride.”

Unbeknownst to either woman, they had stopped dancing. Sam brought her hand to Maria's cheek, softly caressing the warm, smooth skin she found there. Her stomach clenched and she suddenly felt weak. Maria's arms immediately wrapped around her, supporting her. “You okay?” The concern hit Sam like a fist to the abdomen, and as her breath left her she realized with shocking clarity that she was deeply, sublimely in love with Maria – and that she had been for a long time. It occurred to her now why she was continually spilling things, tripping over things, and choking on things when she first got to know Maria. Unable to find her voice, Sam could merely nod. Maria's hands gently caressed the back of Sam's neck and little jolts of electricity surged down her body. She couldn't tear her eyes from the gorgeous brown ones peering back at her. She'd never just looked at someone else, looked into her eyes, for this long, and she thought briefly that perhaps she should find it awkward. Instead, she swam in the love and longing she saw there, wondering what her own eyes were giving away. She assumed they reflected the same intensity of feeling.

Her eyes dropped to perfect lips, slightly parted, but the Neville Brothers faded into “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,” and the atmosphere changed. Maria took the lead and, lighting the mood a bit, she moved her hips suggestively and grinned at Sam. Trying to ignore the persistent hum that vibrated through her body, the scientist found herself being twirled around the dance floor and threw her head back in laughter. Solomon Burke's “Cry to Me” slowed them down again, and Sam felt her heart pounding as their bodies pressed tightly together and swayed. Four oldies later they were still lost in each other's dance moves when Pauly interrupted them, gallantly asking Maria if he could cut in. Nodding graciously, the brunette passed Sam's hand to her brother and soon the two were off, cutting swaths through the crowded dance floor.

Maria made her way over to where Eva sat amused by daughter's antics and invited the older woman to take a turn on the dance floor. When “Pretty Woman” began, they rotated again, and the before the night was exhausted every permutation of couples had partnered each other across the parquet floor. Last call saw Pauly leading Eva and Maria leading Sam to “You've Really got a Hold on Me.” The chemistry between the two women changed perceptibly when both of them realized they would soon depart to their respective homes without each other.

To say Maria was a sensual dancer would be an understatement. Arousal coursed through Samantha as the beautiful woman slithered down her body and back up. When Maria eased away from her arms to walk around her and press against her back, circling her hips and breathing on her neck, Sam was acutely aware of the voluptuous breasts gliding just underneath her shoulder blades and she felt her breath catch. As Maria's hands made their way slowly up Sam's thighs from her knees, the scientist swallowed a groan. Unable to stand the exquisite torture a moment longer, Sam turned to face her tormentor. Maria grabbed her hands and placed them firmly on her hips and then, throwing her head back and thrusting her pelvis forward, arched away from her supporter, rolling her shoulders enticingly. Sam felt her mouth go dry and her heart pounded in her ears. Maria rose slowly, her arms wrapping around her partner's neck.

And just like that the song ended.

Maria reached up and placed a gentle kiss in Sam's cheek before quietly bidding her goodnight, and then she was gone.

The next morning found Maria humming as she entered her restaurant. She stopped in her tracks when she was met with a flower arrangement on the counter that must have been four feet high. She craned her neck to see the top and heard giggling beside her. “Why Ms. Sanchez, I believe you're blushing,” Brendon remarked. Swatting at him, Maria reached out and snatched the card. “May these flowers brighten your day the way your smile brightens mine. Thank you for dancing with me last night. I would be honored to escort you to dinner on Friday. Yours, Samantha.”

Reading over her shoulder, Brendon solemnly informed her, “I believe you are being courted, Darling.” The restaurant owner held the card in front of her lips to hide the huge grin she couldn't suppress. He added, “and it's about time.”

**

Sam shoved the gear stick into park and turned off the engine. She rubbed her sweaty palms down her tailored linen pants and swallowed. She couldn't remember ever being this nervous before a date. She was three minutes early according to the digital clock on the radio panel. She felt foolish sitting in her car for the next three minutes, but didn't want to seem overeager, either. She supposed this would be when many women would reapply lipstick, but she didn't even own gloss. Nevertheless, she lowered the visor and studied her appearance. Pulling her lips back, she checked, not for the first time that evening, that she had no food in her teeth. Considering she hadn't been able to get a morsel past her lips since breakfast, there were of course no offending particles to blight her smile. She glanced down at her light-weight, white V-neck sweater and noted that she hadn't spilled any of the food she hadn't eaten. She returned the visor to its home and, grabbing her offering, strode slowly and purposefully up the drive. The warm summer air and the soft crunch of her leather flip-flops on the gravel settled her nerves a bit.

The door opened before her knuckles made contact with the wood and Pauly beamed at her. “Right on time! Please, come in.” Sam was tickled yet again by his charm and formal politeness. “You look very nice tonight, Samantha.” She raised her eyebrows at him. “Maria told me to tell you that,” he whispered conspiratorially. Hearty laughter rose from the bottom of her abdomen, through her throat and out her lips, and she felt all her anxiety replaced by something that felt a lot like happiness. He stood aside and she entered the foyer.

“You did good, my man,” she winked at him, having studiously practiced the skill all week, with Pauly's guidance. “You look dapper as well.” Pauly glanced down at his chinos and polo, which might have constituted a uniform he wore them so regularly. He shrugged and commented, “I guess I always look dapper then.”

“I brought you something,” Sam mentioned, casually, nodding at the brown bag swaying back and forth in her right hand. Pauly's eyes lit up and he grabbed for the parcel. “Uh, uh, uh. I want something in return.”

His eyebrows knit a bit, and then he suggested, “I just got a new book.”

“No, no. I just want to know what your sister's favorite dessert is.”

“Oh, that's easy. She likes crème brulee.”

She extended the cookie-filled bag to the excited young man in front of her. He was peering into it when Sam smelled her. Her nostrils flared at the sweet, fresh scent of lavender and sandalwood and, faintly, something a little sharp, akin to patchouli. She closed her eyes briefly and let the intoxicating fragrance wash over her. She turned and felt her chest constrict at the site her eyes devoured. Maria wore a flowing white linen dress that stopped just above her knees, offset by small sapphires in each ear. Thin silver straps encircled her ankles and crossed just above her toes. Both women looked like they were headed toward the beach, and Sam forced her thoughts away from kissing Maria as the surf danced around their ankles. “You look stunning.” She struggled to keep the desire out of her voice, and wasn't sure she was entirely successful.

“And you look positively fetching,” Maria returned.

Through a mouthful of cookie, Pauly puffed, “I already told her that,” spraying a few crumbs. Both women laughed, and Maria indicated the remaining cookie half in his hand. “Your doing?”

“Guilty as charged.”

“Well, you certainly know your way into one Sanchez's heart. Shall we see how you do with the other one?”

Their eyes met and a current of electricity passed between them.

“I'm up for the challenge. Shall we?” Sam held the door open for her date and enjoyed the view for a beat before she grinned at Pauly. “Your sister sure is something.” He nodded happily, pleased that Sam agreed with him. She hurried to overtake her companion and open the car door for her. Pauly leaded against the doorframe and sighed contentedly, nibbling on his second cookie as strains of Otis Redding wafted from the car before it eased down the driveway and pulled away.

**

Sam had booked a reservation at an upscale bistro in Essex, 45 minutes away. The hostess led them to a romantic table by the windows with two chairs at ninety degrees to each other, rather than on opposite sides of the table. An orchid floated in a small glass bowel in the center of the table, flanked by two tea candles. They immediately agreed on a bottle of Pinot Noir and settled back into their chairs, sipping wine and discussing the menu. Sam was acutely aware of the heat coming from Maria's bare knee, then equally distracted by the thrumming of her heartbeat. Grateful for the dim lighting, she nevertheless tried to suppress the flush rising up her neck and settling in her cheeks. As though it were the most natural thing in the world, Maria gently rested her knee against Sam's and continued chatting about what she wanted to order. Sam's heartbeat continued to race, but she grew accustomed to it and was soon able to focus on other things.

They enjoyed easy conversation over dinner, basking in the simple joy of being near one another after a brief period of estrangement. As they shared bruschetta, Maria spoke of her hopes for expanding the reach of her gardens into CSA boxes and her idea for a Stowe Away cookbook. She stole forkfuls of frisee and gorgonzola from her companion's plate while Sam revealed her concerns about returning to med school after such a long hiatus, and her strategy for managing both coursework and care for her mother. As they feasted on a shared portion of seafood risotto, Maria teased Sam mercilessly about her poor poker playing skills. Sam responded by hinting that Maria's culinary contributions to the salon might not satisfy the rule that salon participants present their artistic work, and maybe the Latina needed to pick up the didgeridoo.

When, after their plates had been cleared, the waiter slipped a tureen of crème brulee in front of each woman, Maria looked up in surprise. Sam grinned slyly and whispered that a lady never reveals her sources.

“Oh, I have ways to make you reveal your . . . secrets,” returned the shorter woman, coyly, raking her eyes down Sam's body and back up again.

Suddenly serious, Sam meant it when she said, “yes. Yes you do.” She took a deep breath, then began, “Maria, I -- ” Suddenly she knew all the speeches she'd rehearsed were woefully inadequate. She dropped her eyes and froze.

Taking compassion on the woman who had stolen her heat long ago, Maria reached over and wrapped her fingers around Sam's. “You don't have to do this.”

“I do. I want to.” Sam said emphatically, frustrated. “It's just . . . I've been . . . um, well. You, uh . . . .I'm trying to tell you . . .” She trailed off again.

Maria laughed a little. “Well, you're not very good at it.”

Blushing and stammering, Sam assented with a dejected “I know. What I what to say . . . I mean, you . . . ahem.” Sam stopped, miserable.

Finding the whole scene positively endearing, Maria's laughter became a chuckle. “You're the only person I've ever met who actually says ‘ahem,' instead of just making the noise.”

Growing more flustered, Sam threw out, “you're not helping!”

“Not trying to.” Maria leaned back, her shoulders shaking. Finally meeting her eyes, Sam was overwhelmed by the love and forgiveness she saw there. Her jaw relaxed, the tension around her eyes softened, and soon she was laughing, too.

“Well, that went well.” She threw up her hands in defeat.

“I'm sure you're better in . . . other arenas.” The Latina couldn't even feign flirtation, and the women dissolved into laughter yet again.

“God, let's hope so,” Sam said, wiping her eyes.

Maria rested her hand on Sam's thigh and squeezed. “C'mon, let's get out of here.”

**

They held hands lightly as the Chevy wound its way back to Stowe. It was a clear night, and Maria gazed through the sunroof at the stars. To the driver's surprise, she began naming constellations. They delighted in their mutual interest in astronomy and devoted most of the return drive to confessing what they really thought various groupings of stars resembled. Unclasping their fingers, Maria slid her hand behind Sam's head, through her dark locks, and softly stroked the skin at the back of her neck. Sam knew her profile was being studied, and she found it didn't make her nervous. Instead, she sighed deeply before her passenger removed her hand. Sam only had a moment to regret the loss before Maria's head came to rest on her shoulder, the light touch of gentle curls against her cheek making Sam's mouth tingle. She softly whispered “I missed you” to her passenger, and they remained that way until the car arrived back at Maria's driveway.

Sam turned the engine off, then rotated the key a notch to return power to the CD player. After lowering the windows, she turned the dial up on Otis. Green eyes found brown. “Please dance with me.” Maria smiled and nodded, and the two women met a few paces in front of the car to wrap their arms around each other. Warm, heavy air blanketed them and the soft sounds of birds intermingled with Otis's crooning.

“God, you feel so good,” Sam breathed, running her cheek against the baby soft skin of Maria's ear. “Maria, I'm sorry it took me so long.”

“You always were a slow learner,” Maria murmured. Her hands created a swath of fire as they ascended Sam's back and she insinuated her fingers into long, straight tresses. Both of their hearts pounded and their breath grew ragged.

“I don't want to fuck this up,” Sam confessed quietly, tightening her hold on her partner's waist.

“Then don't,” came Maria's low, lusty response. Her eyelids heavy with desire, she issued a soft demand. “Kiss me.”

Sam closed the space between their lips slowly, feeling the heat of their breath mingling between them. The roof of her mouth buzzed in anticipation until their mouths melded together, their tongues explored, and moans passed back and forth between them. Sam's hands found the sides of Maria's face, then the back of her head, pulling her closer, needing more of her. Maria pulled on Sam's hips, then her ass, needing to fuse their bodies together. Neither alone had the strength to stand, but the force of their combined yearning held them upright. Maria's lips moved to Sam's chin, then down her throat to the base of her neck. Sam's head rolled back as she fought for air. Her hands drifted down Maria's chest, brushing over her breasts. “God, yes.” Maria's voice vibrated against Sam's collarbone. Sam's touch grew firmer, massaging both breasts and working her way to their center. She felt hardened nipples through Maria's silk bra and linen dress, and she passed her thumbs over them again and again, Maria's groans becoming louder. Their lips met again and Sam sucked Maria's tongue into her mouth. She gently scraped her teeth over it and held on as the strength left both women's legs. Pulling away slightly, Maria instructed, “come inside with me.”

It took Sam a second before she remembered how to talk. “Shouldn't we take this slower?”

“No. You've made me wait long enough, Samantha Latham. Come inside.” Taking the taller woman's hand, she guided her up the walk and through the front door. They stopped in the hallway to exchange more searing kisses. Their hands wandered all over each other's bodies, exploring, claiming. At one point good sense returned to Sam long enough for her to ask “Pauly?” “My uncle's,” came Maria's throaty reply. When Sam's lips moved to the soft spot underneath Maria's ear, she panted, “bedroom.”

They undressed each other unhurriedly, unfastening and unzipping accompanied by long, burning kisses on newly revealed swaths of skin. When they were finally naked, only an inch between their bodies, Sam dragged her fingers from the side of Maria's thigh up her torso, between her breasts. “Your skin feels so good under my fingertips.” With shocking restraint, Maria slowly backed Sam up until her thighs hit the queen-sized mattress. “Lie down,” came the soft command, and Sam complied. Slowly, so achingly slowly, Maria lowered her body on top of Sam's, each woman savoring every inch of new contact. Supporting herself on her elbow, Maria placed her hand on the side of Sam's face, holding her while her other hand slid down Sam's body and they began to move against each other. “Don't close your eyes,” she whispered. “Oh, god,” was all Sam could reply. The sweet, painful ache in Sam's body threatened to overwhelm her, and she bit back the release as long as she could, reveling in the sensations coursing through her body and the eyes that almost undid her. She knew in that instant that she had never made love before, not like this, and she gave herself over to the woman whose body moved with hers as though they had always been one. Nothing in her life had ever felt so right, so unbelievably, painfully, sublimely perfect. Maria's eyelids fluttered a little. Their chests heaved with wrenching gasps and shudders began to rocket through their bodies. “I love you,” Sam gasped, and the promise in those words sliced right through Maria. She threw back her head and exploded, crying Sam's name. Hearing her name wrenched from the back of Maria's throat as she came destroyed Sam's fragile control, and as she climaxed, she shattered. Into a thousand pieces. Tears slid down her face, dropping onto the pillowcase beneath her head. She clung desperately to Maria, feeling for all the world that she might die if she let go. Maria caressed her face, her neck, her hair, murmuring again and again, “I love you.” They held onto each other, and it was a long time before Sam quieted.

**

When she awoke, Maria still held her, and was tracing slight designs on her shoulder with tender fingertips. She raised her eyes until they locked onto brown ones, sparkling in the soft moonlight that wafted through the skylight above Maria's bed. Brushing tendrils of hair from the breathtaking face gazing back at her, she sought the right words for the moment and yet again came up short. The corners of Maria's mouth began to twitch, and she bit her lip. “What?” Sam demanded.

“It's just . . .” Maria couldn't suppress the gentle laughter that slid from her mouth. “You're such a girl!”

“What?!”

“Well, you did cry.”

Sam swatted at her. “I should hope you noticed I'm a girl.”

“Oh, I noticed all right.” Maria flicked one of Sam's nipples playfully.

“Besides, it's your fault I cried.”

Suddenly serious, Maria's low alto intoned, “I know. Payback's a bitch.”

“I'm so sorry. God, I'm sorry.” The anguish in Sam's voice was all the apology Maria needed, and she silenced her with a kiss.

“It's in the past. You're here now. And you're all mine. You are, right? Mine?”

“Wholly. Completely. Absolutely.” She completed her promise with a long kiss. Several more followed, deepening and growing more passionate. Sam flipped them, and Maria found herself pinned by a long, thin body and ravenous eyes. “You look good on your back.”

“You look good on top of me.”

Blood began to pulse more quickly and a tremor shook Maria's body as hot lips found her neck, then the hollow at the base of her throat, then lower.

Later, when their heartbeats had normalized, green eyes peered up at brown. “Hey there.”

“Hey yourself,” came Maria's reply.

“Mmmmm.”

“Articulate.”

“Mmm Hmm.”

“I could go used to this,” Maria informed her.

“Yes. Yes, yes, yes. God, yes. This. Forever,” Sam responded, and then immediately worried she'd said too much.

“Hey. Look at me.” Maria gently guided Sam's head upward. “Do you mean that? Forever?”

So much rode on her answer, Sam realized painfully. She did mean it. But she had thought she'd meant it before and been rebuffed.

“In this moment, all I can see is you. All I want is you, all over me, all over my life,” she answered honestly.

Tears welled up in Maria's eyes, and one slipped down her cheek.

Sam smiled hopefully. “Now who's the girl?”

“Shut up and kiss me.” And so she did. They kissed softly, languidly, for long moments filled with promise. Finally Maria pulled away.

“I'm thirsty.”

“Seriously? That's what you have to say right now?”

“Well, I am.” After kissing the scientist's forehead, she disentangled herself, rose, and shrugged on a white silk robe. “I'll be right back. Miss me,” she instructed before departing.

Shadows of tree branches pirouetted on the walls from the window, and the bed from the skylight. In the distance an owl hooted happily. Down the hall, cabinet doors opened and closed, and running water filled two containers.

When Maria reentered, Sam was reclining on her side facing the door, one knee drawn up a little, her head supported on her hand. Her eyes ran lasciviously down Maria's legs before settling on her breasts. “Why, Ms. Sanchez, you look stunning in that little silk robe.”

Shaking her head at Sam's flirtation, she approached the bed and held out one of the two glasses before tipping her head back and quaffing her own. Sam watched Maria's throat in fascination as her long neck swallowed. In one fluid movement Sam swung up, unceremoniously dropped her glass onto the nightstand, settled her legs on each side of Maria, and dragged her tongue up her throat. Maria had barely deposited her glass next to her companion's before the belt closing her robe was released and Sam dropped off the bedside onto her knees on the plush carpet, Maria's hands instantly threading into her hair. It didn't take much before Maria's knees buckled. “I can't stand,” came a strangled cry from above Sam. Without thinking, Sam glided onto her back between Maria's legs and pulled the standing woman to her knees above her. Clutching the bed for support, Maria lowered herself onto Sam's eager mouth.

After Sam had drawn out every possible ounce of pleasure, Maria weakly croaked out, “bed, now,” and Sam helped her stumble gracelessly onto the mattress and between the sheets. Pulling the down comforter over them, Sam curled up behind the still-shaking woman, kissing her shoulder and easing her into sleep.

**

The sunlight streamed in through the skylight, bathing the room the glow of morning. Sam woke to find soft lips brushing against her hairline, and she breathed a sigh of contentment. “You're nice to wake up to.”

“So no regrets then?” Maria murmured her question into the baby fine hair at Sam's temple.

Sam gently eased away, her fingertips lightly stroking the beautiful face above her. “Not about last night. Never about last night.”

“Good,” Maria smiled. Her lips found Sam's neck and she crooned, “then let's do it again.”

**

“I think we need to buy our uncles something nice,” Sam chuckled as she sipped on French pressed coffee and watched Maria move about the kitchen, thinking how grateful she was that her father's brother had agreed to spend Friday and Saturday in Stowe with Eva.

“Why? Are you planning on making a habit of this?” Maria inquired with feigned innocence.

Sam snuck up behind her as she flipped pancakes, pulling Maria's hips back into her own and biting her neck lightly. “Absofuckinglutely.” Maria shoved the pan off the burner and threw the dial to the off position before spinning around and claiming Sam's mouth. Hours of lovemaking had done nothing to diminish their desire, and Sam rotated their positions, backed Maria up to the kitchen island, and lifted her to the countertop.

The Saturday passed with Pauly playing Checkers with his uncle, Eva playing Scrabble with her brother-in-law, and Maria and Samantha playing each other. When the day drew to a close and grey overtook blue in the sky, they disentangled themselves and slowly began to dress, each article of clothing bringing them closer to reality and responsibility.

Maria, who had been so assured and assertive in their interactions, trembled a little when she stilled Sam's hands with her own and asked, “what happens now?”

Sam brought those skillful, beautiful hands to her mouth and, smiling, lavished them with kisses. “Now we dream of each other, until next time.”

“Next time?”

“Yeah, what are you doing tomorrow? I thought maybe the four of us could go for a little hike and picnic. Then perhaps Eva and Pauly can paint for a while in your dining room while we sneak off to your bedroom and I paint you with kisses.”

Maria laughed. “I think there might be some flaws in your plan.”

“Ok, so it's an imperfect system, but we'll work it out. Maria, I love you and I want you, and we can work this out.”

Maria studied the green eyes that, she would reveal much later, had captivated her even in high school. “I believe you.” They kissed on it.

November 2009

Sam belted along with Elvis to “All Shook Up” as the Chevy made its way from Burlington back to Stowe. It had been a long day in the lab, and darkness had descended a few hours earlier. Her body and mind were both drained, but she smiled anyway. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving, and she eagerly anticipated spending a work-free weekend with her favorite people. Saturday would see the Sanchez and Latham families in Boston, getting a head start on Christmas shopping, and Sunday they would drive from their hotel on the Charles River to Gillette Stadium to watch the Patriots take on the 49ers. Provided her flight from Madrid was on time, Natalie would be meeting them there, decked out in San Francisco's red and silver, her new boyfriend in tow. Maria had watched Samantha's face closely when she revealed this last bit of information, and was relieved to find only curiosity about what kind of chap Natalie would like enough to introduce to family, and how long this one would last.

Sam discovered that her feelings toward Natalie felt more honest now, perhaps because she had been trying to force something that wouldn't come naturally. Her single-minded focus on transforming their relationship into an epic romance left her without the resources to see Natalie's flaws and embrace them, rather than myopically to deny they existed. The ping-ponging of her attitude toward Natalie had quieted into a steady stream affection. She wasn't scared to look at the great love she bore Natalie now, nor was she obsessed with it, taking it out of her pocket like a precious stone she turned over and over in her hands until she could no longer see it for what it was. She welcomed her love for Natalie as the by-product of years of history and the connection that had brought them together originally. Natalie was family. She would always be so.

But a grin Sam had no power to stop spread across her features every time she thought of her new family. Maria had sneaked up on her and burrowed into Sam's heart. She was so easy to love, and Sam loved her so thoroughly – deeply and broadly, peacefully and passionately – that now Sam could fathom no another way to love. Her feelings for Maria came as naturally to her as breathing, as waking and sleeping, as putting one foot in front of another. When she learned something fascinating in class or on NPR while she commuted, when she said something stupid or tripped, when she was struck by the beauty of the sky or a leave fluttering across the ground, she wanted to share it with Maria. Maria had quietly opened Sam's eyes to an appreciation not only of the exceptional, but also of the mundane, and she had done so with such patience and subtly that Sam felt she would spend a lifetime trying in vain to repay her. But love, Maria had taught her, didn't keep score.

Except somehow, Sam was pretty sure she'd won.

The following weekend, after turkey and stuffing and cutting down the Christmas tree for Maria's living room, employees of Stowe Away would gather at Sam and Eva's house to help them move. After lengthy discussions about which house suited them more, Eva admitted she didn't need to live in Jack's house any longer and it was settled. She would move into Maria's old room, and Sam would join her partner in the master bedroom. Zeus and Hephe got along well, and everyone was curious about what would happen when Hephe and Aphrodite were introduced.

Sam smiled when she pictured the two unlikely felines snuggling together. “My tongue gets tied when I try to speak, my insides shake like a leaf on a tree,” Sam sang out. “There's only one cure for this body of mine, that's to have that girl that I love so fine!”

She glanced over at the passenger seat where a tiny wrapped package rested, full of promise. She'd selected a sapphire that matched the earrings Maria had worn on their first official date, deciding that her fiery lover would prefer something less conventional than a diamond. Sam knew when the moment came all the speeches she'd practiced would be inadequate, and Maria would probably have to say the words for her. But she looked forward to a lifetime of leaving each other speechless and finishing each other's sentences. As the car carried her past Stowe Away, she glanced into the restaurant to find tables occupied by couples on dates and families toasting one another. Her family, she knew, was waiting for her in her new home. After watching her flounder about the kitchen for months, Maria insisted that tonight would be Sam's first cooking lesson. Eva and Pauly were thrilled about the impending improvement in their meals, and Maria had promised they could eat popcorn while they watched Sam try to learn.

The End.

 

Copyright Blythe Rippon, September 2012. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced without the prior express permission of the author.

This story is a work of fiction and is not intended to represent any particular individual, alive or dead.

Please feel free to send feedback to blythe.rippon@gmail.com

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