by:

Disclaimers: Uhm. No.. I don't think so. This is a work of fiction, borne of my psychotic imagination. The characters are based on themselves, and they (along with their neuroses and psychoses) belong to Bertha (my faithful Muse) and myself. You may borrow them for your own personal use, but make sure they shower before returning them to me. 

Sex/Violence: Yeah, this one shall have sex at some point or another, so get the vibrators ready. And it will be that fun lesbian sex we're all so fond of, so if you're not 18... OFF WITH YOUR HEAD! Well no... you know the drill.  Violence? No.. none of that. I bring you loooove...

Dedication: To Cindy, for listening to me talk ENDLESSLY about this story and its characters, and for reading, and re-reading, and supporting my madness through all its twists and turns. Thank you for teaching me about love... I was clueless before you came along...and I still have much to learn. I dedicate this also to all my fellow hopeless romantics.. we're a dying breed, I know... 

Feedback: Send comments, questions, and cans of Dr Pepper (preferably full) to amazonkiwi@aol.com 


Chapter Five

Starting a relationship, in my opinion, seems like a complicated process. I mean, what marks the start of a relationship? A kiss? And if so, what kind of relationship? Does a particular type of kiss signal the start of a particular kind of relationship. Or is a kiss just a prelude of things to come? Does one sit down with the potential boyfriend/girlfriend candidate and discuss the rules? And who makes up the rules? What if one party wants a committed relationship and the other doesn't? Whose interests take priority then? Because, really, what are the odds that two random people who are physically attracted to one another turn out to both want the same exact thing at the same exact time? 

These were the thoughts going through my mind at dinner, as I contemplated the meaning of what could only be construed as a date. It's amazing how important the term "date" seems when spoken of, but when you're in it, it doesn't seem like that big of a deal. Two people just hanging out. Except that with a "date" comes expectations, and these expectations had my stomach in knots. It was at this point that my mind refocused on the real world, and I grew aware of Valerie watching me. 

"You haven't heard a word I said, huh?" she asked.

It struck me as odd how everyone seemed to know when I wasn't listening to them. Did my eyes glow with a sign reading 'vacant'? "Sorry, I was thinking."

"About?"

"Relationships," I responded honestly. 

"Oh really? Anything in particular?" She leaned forward, seemingly interested. 

She was asking me to speak my mind. If she only knew what a scary proposition that was. I figured, however, that if I was going to freak her out, I might as well do it before any permanent damage was done. "I was just thinking that relationships are complicated."

"How so?"

"Well, for instance, is this an official date?"

Valerie frowned slightly. "Um..."

I didn't wait for her to answer. "It's like when does something become romantic as opposed to just friendly and how do you know what kind of relationship you're entering into; short-term, long-term; one night stand? And how do you know if you're supposed to be monogamous? Is monogamy even in existence these days? And if you have sex on the first date, does that speed up the relationship process or kill it altogether?"

"Anyone ever tell you that you think too much?"

I smiled. "Hey these are valid questions."

Valerie looked around the Baldwin Lakes Mall food court. "Do you want to get out of here?"

"Sure."

We walked outside in silence, comforted by the noise of passing cars and busy shoppers parading across the parking lot. It was when we reached her car that I got the insatiable need to run. One of these days, I thought pulling open the passenger side door of Valerie's Bronco II, I'll actually dart off into the night. This wasn't that night however, so I made myself comfortable, withholding the impulse to drum my fingers on the door's armrest. Instead, I bit my lips, and stole a glance at Valerie who was looking at me curiously. My heart leapt up my throat and I had to swallow it down. Relax, dumbass, became my mantra. 

I felt her hand on mine so suddenly, that I jumped, startled. I might have let out a shriek too, I'm not sure, yet surprisingly, her hand did not move. I looked up into a pair of smiling blue eyes. "I'm sorry," was all I could come up with. "I'm kind of .. I've never ..." I half expected her to kiss me right then, if only to shut me up. Instead, she laughed, let go of my hand, and started up the car. So I sat back against the seat, feeling like a total asshole. 

"I don't want to get you into bed, if that's what you're afraid of," Valerie said suddenly, her eyes glued to the road.

The statement was spoken so softly that I wondered if I'd imagined it. I repeated the statement in my mind, mulling over the meaning of each word, until I suddenly felt ... offended. "You don't want to get me into bed?" I asked. 

She glanced at me quickly, surprise written on her face. "Well, no."

"Aren't you gay?" I demanded.

"Last time I checked."

I frowned. 'Well why the hell don't you want to sleep with me then? You did say I was cute, did you not?"

"I never said you weren't."

"And you did give me your number, did you not?"

Valerie pulled the car over to the side of the road.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm pulling over so I can talk to you, cause it's hard to have an argument with someone while you're driving."

Argument? 

She put the car in park, and turned to me. "Okay. I didn't say I never wanted to sleep with you, I was just trying to put your mind at rest if that's what you were worried about."

"So you would like to sleep with me, just not tonight?"

Valerie stared at me silently for a moment. "Would you like to sleep with me?"

The question caught me by surprise. It shouldn't have, but it did, and it suddenly hit me that I was discussing having sex with a total stranger. "When?"

"Just in general."

"Well I guess that depends."

"On?"

I sat back thoughtfully. "Well on several factors. First, I'd have to get to know you better, and I doubt we'd accomplish that on a first date-"

"Are you asking me out on a second date?"

I arched an eyebrow. "Well we never did finish establishing what this was."

"For argument's sake, let's just call it a date."

I shrugged. "Fine then. Would you like to go out with me again?"

"Sure."

"When's good for you?"

"How about tomorrow at eight?"

"Sounds good."

"Meet you at my club?"

"Okay."

Silence. 

"What's the second factor?" Valerie asked. 

"Hmm?"

"The second factor in your reasoning to sleep with me."

I shifted in the seat, turning so I could face her. I liked the way she was framed by the car window with zooming cars flashing in the background. It looked almost magical. "I guess, how much I like you would be factor number two."

She grinned slightly. "Is there a factor number three?"

"How good of a kisser you are."

Valerie was quiet. "Is that your way of telling me to kiss you?"

"No. I have factors for kissing too."

She smiled, throwing the truck into gear. She pulled back out into the road without saying anything. 

That went relatively smoothly, I thought, feeling rather proud of myself.

"Okay, so what are the factors for kissing?" Valerie asked, breaking the silence between us. 

I glanced at her quickly then shrugged. "I haven't come up with them yet, but when I do you'll be the first to know."

"I appreciate that."

"Any time."

"So what would you like to do now?" she asked. "Or would you like to call it a night?"

I wasn't entirely sure what I was doing, or what I wanted, but I knew for a fact that 'calling it a night' wasn't it. "Let's rent a movie," I suggested. "We can take it back to Jessica's."

"Sounds like a plan."

She smiled. I smiled. We both smile. And my heart, might have even grinned a little. 

But just a little.



Choosing a movie that we would both enjoy was the tricky part. Maybe this would be the determining factor as to the future of our relationship. What if she wanted to watch a western? I hate westerns. She could've turned out to be the biggest western fanatic this side of El Paso. Then what would I do? Or maybe she was the sappy romantic type. What if she wanted to watch Gone With the Wind? I'd have to kill her. 

Perhaps this had been a bad idea.

"What are you in the mood for?" Valerie asked, as we crossed through the doors of Hollywood Video. 

"Well I guess this would be a good time to ask what your favorite type of movies are," I commented, as we passed by the DVD selections on our way to new releases. 

Valerie half turned as she answered. "Horror mostly. You?"

Marry me. Now. "Horror too." I smiled a bit sheepishly. "I also like comedies," I added, not sure why. Perhaps so she wouldn't think I was copying her. "I'll even deal with action. As long as there's a lot of blood."

She smiled. "Do you want to check out the new releases or go straight for the horror section?"

I shrugged at this. So we started off in new releases. Half an hour later, we walked out of the door with copies of Blue Streak, Night of the Living Dead, House on Hunted Hill, and Run Lola Run. Quite the variety, I must say. "So how many of these do you think we'll actually get through?" 

"One?" Valerie guessed, starting up the car.

I nodded. "Sounds about right."

Valerie turned on the radio, and I was grateful that it saved us the trouble of making conversation. On the plus side, I was feeling more relaxed, and far less paranoid than I had been at the start of the evening. 

Meanwhile, I was trying to decide whether I wanted to invite Valerie back to my dorm. I knew Nicole was gone for the weekend, so we wouldn't have to worry about that. But Jessica had the big TV, and my car was at her house. The logical thing was to go to Jessica's, and watch the movies. I'd spend the night, and head to school in the morning. I kept myself from outwardly nodding to myself, and instead refocused on the outside world. "What are we listening to?" I asked, noticing the music for the first time. 

"Save Ferris," Valerie responded, lowering the volume so we wouldn't have to shout over the music. "Want me to switch to something else?"

I shook my head. "Nah, it's not bad. I'd just never heard them before. Are they your favorite band?"

"Yeah, they're up there. I also like Dance Hall Crashers."

"Never heard of them either."

"I guess you're not into ska."

"Can't say that I am. Although, it's more from lack of exposure than anything else."

Valerie studied me silently for a moment, glancing back and forth between my face and the road for several seconds before responding with, "Well, hopefully you'll decide to hang around me long enough to expose yourself."

"Do you come up with these things on the spot, or do you have this like endless storage of cheesy one-liners?"

"Both." She winked at me. 

I smiled, turning my attention to the window. 

"You're really not the flirting type, huh?"

I turned my head to look at her. "I think flirting is just a coward's way of saying what's really on their mind."

"Oh yeah?"

"For instance, by your 'expose yourself' comment, what you were really trying to say is that you like me."

Valerie glanced at me quickly. "Is that a fact?"

"Yes. It was either that, or that you hope I hang around long enough to sleep with you."

"Can it be both?"

I laughed. "Possibly."

"So instead of flirting, you just come right out and say what you really mean to say?"

I considered the question as Jessica's mansion rolled into view. "Well, not necessarily. Sometimes, I just don't say anything at all. This saves me the embarrassment of saying something I'll regret saying two seconds later."

Valerie parked the car in Jessica's driveway, right in front of my beetle, and turned off the ignition while saying, "You are one strange woman."

"Thank you," I responded, and jumped out of the car, carrying the bag of movies with me. 

Maurice was opening the door before I even got a chance to ring the doorbell. It was uncanny. Sometimes I got the feeling that he stood at the front door, staring through the peephole just waiting for someone to show up so he could open the door for them. He bowed his head as I passed through the threshold. "Welcome, miss."

"Hiya, Maurice. My friend Valerie and I are just going to Jessica's room to watch some movies." I held up the bag for emphasis.

"Very well, miss." He nodded at Valerie, shut the door behind us, and excused himself. 

Valerie watched him walk away and frowned. "You'd think he'd be a little bit more hesitant to let us in here while the owner of the house is away."

I shook my head, and started toward the staircase. "Rule number one in the Heart mansion: Alix rules all."

"What's rule number two?" Valerie asked, following me up the stairs.

"There is no rule two. Rule one is all that matters." I smiled at her, then continued silently the rest of the way to Jessica's room. 

We managed to get through House on Hunted Hill and Blue Streak before exhaustion set in. It was nearly four in the morning at this point, and we'd been on the verge of falling asleep on Jessica's couch when Valerie announced that she'd better get going.

"You can sleep over if you'd like," I offered, motioning to Jessica's king sized bed. "You'll have plenty of room, I promise."

Valerie smiled at the offer, but shook her head and declined. "I've got to go to work in a few hours. I might as well head home."

"I'll walk you out then."

Outside, the ocean breeze planted salty kisses on my cheek as I followed Valerie across the gravel driveway to her car. In my mind, I was wondering how the evening was going to end. Would she kiss me? Would I kiss her back? Would I freak out and run? Did she know this was my first time? Questions and no answers. This was the story of my life. 

"I had fun tonight," Valerie announced as she reached her car. 

I scrunched up my face. "Can't you think of anything better than that? I mean, that's what everyone says at the end of a date. Even if they had a horrible time, they always say the same exact thing."

"You're so difficult."

I smiled. "Much better."

She laughed, and ran a hand through her hair. "So I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yep. Whispers at eight." 

There was that awkward silence that occurs when two people aren't sure what to do next and must take a moment to decide the next course of action. I was hoping she'd kiss me. I was trying to conjure up enough courage to kiss her. Neither choice seemed likely, and as she opened the driver's side door to get into the car, I saw my chance slipping away. Instead of taking it, however, I said the wittiest thing I could come up with. "Drive safely."

"Yes mom."

I grinned at her response, then watched her drive away. I glanced at my watch. It was nearly four-thirty and I was about to collapse. On my way back to Jessica's room, I couldn't help but think that my life had suddenly gotten interesting. 

I wasn't sure if it was a good thing ... or a bad. 

 

Chapter Six


"You're home early," I stated, kicking closed the dorm room door with my foot. I yawned, and took a seat at my desk, booting up my laptop as I did so. 

Nicole mumbled something unintelligible from behind a book.

"What was that last word after 'bleh'?" I asked, leaning my chin on the back of the chair so that I could look at her without having to expend any unnecessary energy. 

The book lowered to reveal Nicole's face. "I said I came back last night. Where were you?"

"I spent the night at Jessica's," I answered, turning my attention to the computer. 

Nicole raised an eyebrow. "I thought she was on her honeymoon?"

"Yep. She's in Paris alright. I had a date of sorts last night and we went to Jessica's to watch some movies and then I just spent the night there."

The book was shut, and Nicole was leaning forward in her bed. "Alone?" she asked carefully. 

I didn't bother turning around, and paused long enough to log on to the internet. "Yes, alone."

"Did you kiss at least? Is she cute?" 

"No and yes."

"No and yes what?"

I sighed quietly, signing on to America Online. "Welcome," sang the computer, followed by, "you've got mail." I clicked on the mailbox icon, then remembered I still had to clarify my answer to Nicole's question. "No we didn't kiss and yes she's very cute."

"What's her name?"

"Valerie."

"Valerie what?"

I searched my head for the answer. I knew she'd told me her last name when she'd introduced herself at Pride Factory. "It starts with an 's', I think. S-s-skye! Valerie Skye."

"Sounds like a porn star."

I looked around my desk for something soft to throw at her, but came up with nothing. I resigned myself to the very mature response of, "It does not", then scanned down the row of e-mail, deleting junk mail as I went. Finally I came across what I'd been looking for. 

From                                Subject
Dreamer                            bon jour

I smiled to myself and clicked on the letter.

Hey Al,
Well we made it to Paris in one piece. We're about to collapse, we're so tired, but we wanted to let you know we're okay. I'll email you again in a day or two and catch you up on our exciting Frenchian (new word) adventures. We miss you. Please let me know how your date with Valerie went. I've been dying to know. Take care. I love you.

Always,
Jess 

I finished reading, and clicked on the 'reply' icon. 

Subject:     dj vu 


Jess,
Hey, glad to hear from you. Don't mind the subject line. It was the only French thing I could come up with. Anyway, I hope Paris is treating you well, and that you're having fun on your honeymoon. No need for details in that department though. ;)

As for my date with Valerie, it went well enough. We're going out again tonight. I'll keep you posted on any juicy details, if any arise. Nothing happened last night. We went for a walk, then to dinner, then rented some movies and watched them in your room. Thrilling, huh? 

Well, I'm off. Say 'ello to the Mister for me. Hope you're being a good little wife. Cook him dinner, and put his feet up. Oh, and don't forget to bring him a nice cold beer while he's watching the game. I'll shut up now before you smack me from Paris. 

Love always,
Alix 



Closing down AOL, I glanced at the time on Nicole's alarm clock. It was only four-thirty; plenty of time left before date number two. 



At 7:50 I walked through the doors of Whispers, and stood off to the side trying to locate Valerie. I caught sight of her behind the bar, speaking intently with some woman who's back was turned to me. I wasn't sure what to make of the situation, so I stood where I was until I saw Valerie move on to another costumer. I took a deep breath, and made my way to the bar. I don't know why, but I was nervous. 

I took the nearest available stool, and waited for Valerie to notice me. It didn't take her long. A cocktail napkin was placed before me, and I glanced up and into her gorgeous blue eyes.

"I was afraid you'd change your mind," Valerie said, leaning against the bar so I could hear her over the music. 

"Sorry, you're stuck with me another night," I responded. 

She smiled. "Would you like a drink before we go?"

"No, I'm good, thanks." Truth was, one drink and I'd be table hopping in the nude. Not good for a second impression, or third, whichever. 

"Okay give me a minute and we can get out of here."

I nodded, and took that moment to look around the club. It was a little less crowded than it had been the last time I'd been there, but it was lively enough. I glanced up as I noticed that the song playing was one of the songs I'd heard in Valerie's car the previous night. I felt warm breath on my ear, sending chills down my spine. I almost missed what she'd said. "Yeah I'm ready," I answered, turning to face her. She's so beautiful, I thought again, for what felt like the millionth time. I jumped off the stool, and followed Valerie out of the club. 

Once outside, she looked at me a bit sheepishly and said, "Do you mind if we make a slight detour at my apartment? Someone threw their drink at me and I don't feel like smelling like Sex on the Beach all night."

I started laughing, as I followed her down the stairs. "Sorry that just sounded perverted."

She laughed too, then motioned down the street. "I live really close by."

"Lead the way, milady." I fell into step beside her as we made our way through the busy sidewalks of downtown Ft Lauderdale. "So, um. Why did someone throw their drink at you?"

Valerie shrugged. "A small fight ensued and I stepped in to stop it."

"I see. Do you get fights in there often?"

"Not really. Hadn't had one in a while."

I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I fell silent, enjoying the cool breeze blowing in from the ocean. A few minutes later, Valerie turned into an apartment building, and I followed her inside. At the elevator, I paused.

"Something wrong?"

I bit my lip and looked hesitantly at the elevator. "What floor do you live on?"

Valerie seemed confused. "Uh, the fourth."

"Mind if I meet you there?"

She frowned. "Why?"

I wasn't sure which date was appropriate for phobia revelations, but I doubted the second was it. "I like.. stairs."

Valerie looked at me as though I'd grown three heads, then a small smile edged its way across her features. "You're scared of elevators." It wasn't a question.

I sighed to myself. "Terrified is more like it."

Valerie exited the elevator and opened the door leading to the stairs. "After you," she said, bowing slightly. 

I passed through the door, feeling relieved and embarrassed all at the same time. "Thanks," I said, as we began our ascent. 

"Feathers."

I glanced over at her, my eyebrows narrowing in question. "What?"

"That's my phobia."

"You're scared of feathers," I said, a bit incredulously. 

"Terrified is more like it," she responded with a smile, quoting my earlier statement.

I bit my lip to keep from laughing. "You're kidding?"

Valerie shook her head. "Nope." She smacked me lightly on the shoulder. "Don't laugh, Miss I-Like-Stairs."

I smiled at her. "Sorry. I should have more respect for a fellow phobic."

"Thank you." She smiled back at me.

When we reached the fourth floor, I followed Valerie down the hallway to her apartment. The number on the door read '418', and I memorized it for future references. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was hoping it wouldn't be the last time I ever saw that number. 

Valerie's apartment was small, but cozy. Kitchen to the right, living room to the left, and a small hallway leading to the bathroom and bedroom. The hall ended with a pair of glass doors leading to a balcony overlooking an alleyway. I didn't get to the see the balcony until later, though. 

"I guess I could say sorry for the mess, but I'm not really sorry for it," Valerie said, shutting the door behind us. 

"Good. I hate it when people are sorry for their mess. I think a mess is something to be proud of." I looked around and scrunched up my face. "Although, I gotta tell you, Val, this place is kind of a pigsty." The apartment was spotless.

Valerie laughed. "Yeah, I pride myself on that." She motioned to the couch. "Take a seat. I'll be out in a flash."

Valerie headed for what, at the time, I assumed was the bedroom, and I took the moment to get a better look at the apartment. The living room was equipped with a black couch which sat across from a wooden wall unit, on which rested a 19" TV, a VCR, and a stereo system. On the bottom shelf, there was a row of CDs, and I crouched down to look at the selection. I smiled when I saw that she had an Aerosmith CD. Her collection contained mostly bands I'd never heard of, although I recognized Dance Hall Crashers and Save Ferris from the conversation we'd had the night before. On the shelf above, was a row of movies. The box for Labyrinth was empty so I guessed she'd been watching it recently. I loved that movie. 

"Do I pass inspection?"

Her voice startled me, and I jumped slightly. "You need to stop doing that," I said, and turned around. When I saw her, my breath caught in my throat. She'd changed into a pair of tight blue jeans and a black baby tee. I did my best not to drool all over her carpet. Somehow, I found my voice. "Feel better?" I asked.

"Yeah, I even managed a two second shower, so I feel brand new." She grinned at me, and stepped closer. "So, what would you like to do tonight?"

Oh it would've been so easy to kiss her, and to hell with the 'factors'. Instead, I gathered up my raging hormones and spoke sanely. "I'm kind of hungry."

"Dinner it is. I can heat up some frozen dinners ... or we can go to this great restaurant a few blocks down. Your choice."



It was an Italian restaurant, and it smelled wonderful. My stomach growled in complaint, and I sent it down a message telling it to shut up and be patient. 

I was in the process of mentally calculating how much money I had in my wallet when Valerie said, "Dinner's on me." I must have looked surprised, because she quickly added, "You paid for the movies last night, so I thought I'd pay for dinner."

I glanced down at the prices, thinking it was kind of an unfair trade. 

"You can take me to McDonald's some other time and we can even it out," Valerie suggested, reading my thoughts somehow.

I looked up. "McDonald's?"

"Well, I like McDonald's."

I laughed. "Okay. Deal." She smiled and returned to the menu, and I was hit with the sudden realization that I'd just agreed to a third date. Third. How many until one stopped counting? 

"Are you ladies ready to order?" the waiter inquired, pen and notepad in hand. 

Valerie ordered first; she had the lasagna. I still hadn't decided what I wanted so I just went ahead and ordered the lasagna too to avoid any further embarrassment. 

When the waiter walked away, Valerie folded her hands on the table on and regarded me curiously. "So what would you like to do after dinner?"

"Do you always like to think ahead?" I asked her. 

Valerie smiled. "I like having something to look forward to."

"You're not one of those 'live for the moment' types, then, I take it?" I asked, taking a sip of Dr Pepper. 

"I didn't say that," Valerie said. She studied me silently for a moment. "What are you?"

I shrugged. "I guess I'm a seize the moment type of person, though I rarely know what I'm seizing half the time." 

Valerie started laughing. 

I liked making her laugh. It lit up her entire face. "Do you work tomorrow?"

"No I'm off on Mondays and Thursdays," she answered, then added, "I have classes."

"What are you taking?"

"Just a couple of art classes. I'm trying to save up enough money so that next semester I can attend full-time."

I nodded. "You should transfer to Baldwin. We'd be closer." I don't know why I said that. I'd always had a hard time keeping my immediate thoughts from filtering through my lips. 

To my surprise, Valerie responded with, "Do they have a good art program?"

"Actually, yes," I found myself saying. "My roommate last year was an art major so I know."

Valerie seemed thoughtful. "I'll look into it."

I wasn't sure if she was serious or not. Would she really consider transferring to Baldwin just to be close to me? What would it mean if she did? I took another sip of soda in the hopes that drinking would shut my mind up. 

Our food arrived shortly afterwards, and we ate more or less in silence. By then I was starting to feel pretty comfortable around her, and didn't find it necessary to fill each lull with pointless conversation. As we ate, I wondered what she was thinking. She seemed so in-control and at-ease in every situation, while here I was, cursed to be a bumbling idiot for all eternity. 

After dinner we walked outside, unsure of where to head next. It was only 10:00, so we pretty much had the whole night to kill.

"See, if you'd told me what you wanted to do after dinner we wouldn't be standing out here with nothing to do," Valerie teased.

"If I knew what I wanted to do I would've told you at dinner," I responded. 

Valerie took my hand; a gesture that caught me completely by surprise. I felt my heart speed up at the contact, and I begged it to slow down for fear that she might hear it above the crowds of passersby, and the noise of passing traffic. She led me to a wooden railing which divided the sidewalk and the start of sand. She let go of my hand, and I instantly missed the warmth her touch had provided. 

She sat up on the railing, and motioned me to join her. When I did so, she spun around so she was facing the beach instead of the road, and I followed her example. 

"Have you always lived near the ocean," she asked me, breaking the silence between us. 

Distant waves provided the background noise around us, joined on occasion by the distinct yelling of a rowdy group of people or a speeding car. "Yes," was my answer. "I've lived here all my life. What about you?"

"I was born and raised in Boston, then I moved here a couple of years ago."

"For school?" I asked.

She fell silent for a moment, then looked at me as she answered. "For a change of scenery, mostly."

I smiled. "Say 'car.'"

She looked confused for a moment. "Huh? Oh." She smiled. "I don't have an accent. You would've noticed it by now if I did."

"Yeah, that's what I figured, but sometimes I'm not as observant as I should be." I looked straight ahead, at the nothingness in the distance, trying to picture the ocean I knew was there. "Do you like Florida?"

"It's warm," Valerie responded. "Can't say I love it or hate it. Do you like it here?"

I shrugged. "It's home. Can't say I have much basis for comparison. I've never really been anywhere else, except for like California to visit my cousin, Kes." 

"Do you want to stay here forever?"

"Forever is a long time," I responded. Did I want to stay in Florida? All my friends and family were here. Where else would I want to go? "I don't really know. Guess I never thought about it."

Valerie smiled. "Seize the moment, and don't look ahead, that's you."

I smiled back. I guess she was right. I hadn't really thought about that either. "Actually, I think I'm more of a go with the flow kind of person. Can't remember the last time I had a moment to seize."

Valerie looked thoughtful for a moment. "I doubt that's true. I bet you've seized lots of moments without realizing it."

"Oh?" 

"Yep. For instance, if you were to just go with the flow, you wouldn't have called me up the other night."

I was glad it was dark, for I could feel my cheeks getting hot. "Actually, Jessica pretty much dialed the number for me."

"You didn't want to call?"

"No, I did! I just probably wouldn't have, had I not had any outside influence." I looked away, unsure of what this revelation meant to her. 

I felt the warmth of her hand on mine again, and looked up to catch her gaze on me. "I'm grateful to the outside influence, then," she said, grinning slightly. 

What was appropriate to say? 'Me too' seemed so corny. Again it was one of those 'insert kiss here' kind of moments that seemed to arise between us every now and then. If I had indeed been a seize the moment kind of person, I would've kissed her. Only, I knew I wasn't. 

Before I had a chance to come up with a reply, Valerie spoke up. "Do you play pool?"

I was about to tell her I was undefeated when it occurred to me that hustling her might be kind of fun. Unless she was better than me, in which case I'd feel like a fool. I guess we'd find out. "Not well," was my answer. "I've only played a couple of times." Lies, all lies!

"I'll go easy on you," she said, swinging her legs over the railing and jumping down onto the sidewalk. "There's a pool hall not far from here. We could walk, unless you'd rather take your car." This time she said car in a way that sounded like "cah". 

I smiled at her New England accent attempt, and jumped down from the railing. "Very cute."

She grinned. "You think I'm cute?"

More like gorgeous, I thought. I kept that to myself, however, and replied with a nonchalant, "You're okay."

We started walking.

"I guess I'll take what I can get," Valerie said. She smiled. "I thought you didn't flirt?"

I kept my face as serious as possible, and answered with, "Who said I was flirting?"

She laughed at this. "Guess I'll just have to resign myself to the 'just okay' status."

I nodded. "Better to have someone tell you the truth now before you went the rest of your life with a high self-esteem or something." 

"I appreciate your honesty."

"Any time."

We walked for about fifteen minutes before we finally reached the pool hall Valerie had been talking about. It was fairly empty, so we had no trouble getting a table, and we made our way to the one on the far right.

Valerie racked the balls, and I did my best to look clueless. 

"You're holding the cue stick wrong," Valerie informed me.

And so I was. "Oops." 

She smiled. "Guess I'll break then."

"Break what?"

Her eyes narrowed. My clueless routine was on dangerous ground. 

So I smiled as innocently as possible and said, "Kidding."

Valerie turned to the table and got ready to break, so I moved over in order to see the shot. A second later, there was an explosion of color across the table as the white ball broke through the triangle formation and sent solids and stripes in all directions. Not bad, I thought, watching a couple of solids fall nicely into the pockets. 

"You're stripes," Valerie told me.

"Those would be the ones with the stripes across them, right?" 

"Smartass." 

I smiled to myself, and leaned back against the table next to ours. I held my cue stick in front of me, and watched as Valerie took her shot. I loved the way her blonde hair cascaded over the side of her face as she leaned over the table. 

I was too busy looking at her to notice if she made the shot or not, but the way she retreated from the table and looked at me expectantly gave me a small hint. I walked over and spent a minute trying to decide my next course of action. To miss or not to miss, that was the question. In the end, I decided to leave it up to chance. 

Ten minutes later, I'd cleared the table and Valerie was staring at me, mouth agape. "Well it's a good thing I didn't think to play you for money," she joked. 

"Well I was going to hustle you, but then I remembered you paid for dinner and everything..."

"Well thanks a lot."

We played for a little over two hours, and Valerie even beat me in one game. She kept insisting that I let her win, though in all honesty, I'd been too busy thinking of other things to remember how to shoot pool properly. 

Somehow we ended up back at her apartment, on her bed ... No, just kidding. Getting a little ahead of myself there. 

We did end up in her apartment though. 

"You know, I think I'm getting used to taking the stairs instead of the elevator," Valerie announced, as we walked through the door.

I laughed. "Very funny. Just for that, I'm going to get you a nice big feathery bird for your birthday."

"You don't know when my birthday is."

"June first."

Valerie seemed surprised. "You remembered?"

I took a seat on her couch, and looked up at her. "Yeah. I mean, we had a nice little conversation on the importance of birthdays. Why wouldn't I remember?"

She smiled. "Would you like a drink of any kind? I don't have Dr Pepper, sorry, but I've got Pepsi, and I could pretty much fix you any alcoholic beverage you like."

"Nah, I'm fine." 

"Do you not drink?"

"Occasionally, when I want to get really drunk. I don't have very high tolerance for alcohol, and I have to drive home tonight so drinking would probably not be a good idea."

"You could always spend the night."

I looked straight at her, surprise clearly showing on my face. 

"Kidding," she responded, taking a seat next to me. "Well, I guess I was half-joking."

I had no idea what to say. Flirting problem, again. I wondered if they had a Flirting for Dummies manual. 

"Would you like to watch a movie?" Valerie asked, changing the subject. 

I snapped out of it. "Uh, yeah. Sure. What do you have?"

"Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story, Scream, Scream II, Teaching Mrs. Tingle-" 

"How about I just go up there and look," I suggested. 

"Or you could do that." She sat back, putting her feet on the coffee table and folding her hands across her chest.

I made my way over to the wall unit, and looked over the row of movies. There was a nice balance of fantasy and horror with a few random comedies and action flicks thrown in there for variety. There weren't any I didn't feel like watching. "Tough decision. I love most of these movies."

A second later, Valerie was beside me. "How about I go down the row and you can tell me yes, no or maybe?"

I laughed. "That'll take forever. What do you feel like watching?"

"I love them all."

"Well, you're no help. How about Labyrinth, since it's already in the VCR?"

Valerie smiled. "I was hoping you'd pick that one."

I returned to my seat on the couch, while Valerie set up the movie. She turned off the lights and sat next to me. On the TV screen, the movie flickered to life. Meanwhile, I was growing increasingly aware of Valerie's warmth beside me. I wanted to touch her; somewhere, anywhere. I glanced up at her quickly. Wasn't she nervous at all? 

Valerie simply mouthed the words along with the movie. "'Give me the child. Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City...'" 

I had to smile. "Seen it much?"

"Just a couple of times," she responded, with a sly grin.

I turned my attention to the film, attempting to concentrate, but not quite succeeding. Warm breath on my ear again, followed by the words, "Would you like some popcorn?" I felt her lips graze my skin, and I jumped off the couch, landing on the floor with a loud thump.

"Sorry," I heard Valerie say. "Man, you're jumpy. You can come back to the couch. I won't bite, I promise."

I gathered what was left of my pride, and used it to lift myself up onto the couch. I didn't dare look at Valerie. I was mortified. 

"Hey, look at me," Valerie said.

I took a deep breath, and forced myself to meet her gaze. She appeared concerned. "I'm an idiot. I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm so jumpy."

She smiled. "It's kind of cute, actually. Anyway, it's my fault. I shouldn't have done that."

Okay so we both felt like fools, only she was better at hiding it than I was. I begged my mind to think of something to say to take the tension off the situation. "I'd love some popcorn," was what it came up with. 

"Butter or no butter?"

"No butter," I replied.

"No butter? What's wrong with you?" She stood up and walked to the kitchen. "The only other person I know who doesn't like butter on their popcorn is my mother." She turned on the kitchen lights, and the living room was flooded with a faint yellow hue. 

"Then maybe I should be dating her instead."

I heard Valerie laugh but couldn't quite see her. "I doubt you're her type."

"Well damn. Unbuttered popcorn is the key to my heart." 

"I'll try to remember that."

A few minutes later, the lights were off again, and Valerie was handing me a can of Pepsi, and a bowl of unbuttered popcorn. "Thanks."

"Any time," she said, sitting down. 

"Do you live alone?" I asked, unsure of where the question had come from.

"Nope. My girlfriend's away for the weekend." 

I glanced up at her. "I hope you're joking or this bowl of popcorn is going on your head, followed by the entire can of Pepsi."

Valerie smiled, meeting my gaze. "I live alone."

I was silently relieved. "Good. I would've hated to waste the food."

We managed to get through the rest of the movie without any catastrophes. When Valerie turned on the lights, I glanced at my watch. It was nearly three and I had a class at eight. I had to get going, or I'd never wake up. "I better go," I said, rising to my feet. "Class tomorrow."

Valerie nodded. "Yeah, me too. Where are you parked?"

"Next to the club."

"Would you like me to walk you back?" 

"Nah, I can find my way." I paused, smiling up at her. "Thanks though."

She shrugged slightly, and we stood there staring awkwardly at each other for a few seconds. 

"Did you come up with the factors for kissing yet?" she asked suddenly.

I was both surprised and excited by the question. Seize the moment, I thought. "Yes, actually," I answered, though I hadn't really thought about it.

Valerie's eyebrows rose. "Oh?"

"Yeah, but there's really only one," I told her, and our gazes met. I drowned in her eyes, losing all train of thought.

She stepped a little closer. "What is it?" she asked softly.

"You have to kiss me," I replied, the words leaving my mouth before I knew what I was saying. 

And before I knew it, her lips were on mine; so soft and sweet I thought I would melt into her arms. I pulled away, overwhelmed by the rush of emotions surging through me. I wanted to throw my arms around her neck and press her close to me. I wanted her so badly I thought I would explode with longing. 

Somehow, I managed to pull myself together long enough to speak. "I should give you my number," were the first words to pass through my mouth. 

"Oh, right. I don't have that." Valerie excused herself for a moment as she went to find a pen and paper. I leaned against the nearest wall, trying to calm my racing heart. I'd never felt anything like this before. Maybe I was having a heart attack and didn't realize it. 

A minute later, Valerie was back, pen and paper in hand. I scribbled down my number, and even my email address though I didn't see a computer anywhere in the apartment. 

"Aerosmith30, huh?" Valerie said, looking down at the piece of paper. 

"I don't know if you have a computer or anything. I just thought I'd give it to you anyway."

"Thanks." She opened the door for me, and I stepped out into the hall. "I'll call you," she promised.

I nodded. "Okay. Good night."

"Good night."

I smiled, and then started down the hallway, knowing she was still standing in the doorway watching me.

 

Chapter Seven

"I am freaking out," I whined, burying my face in my hands. 

Jade yawned from across the table. We were at dining hall the following morning, eating breakfast before heading off to class. "Quit being such a wanker," she told me, without looking up from her food.

I sighed looking at her through my fingers. "I don't know what to do."

"About what?"

"About Valerie."

This time she glanced up at me. "I told you, stop being such a bloody wanker. You've spent the last few years lusting after Jessica. Give yourself a break. At least you have a chance with this one."

I knew Jade was right. I was freaking out, but it wasn't because I didn't know what to do about Valerie. It was something else. "I'm scared, Jay," I admitted. 

"Of?"

"Women. Sex. Love." I shrugged. "It was easy being in love with Jessica because I knew I didn't stand a chance, so it was safe. With Valerie, though, it's something different entirely."

"Welcome to the world of real relationships," Jade told me, lifting up her glass of orange juice in a mock toast. "You didn't freak out this much when you started dating Zack."

I shook my head. "It was different. I was sixteen. Somehow, I was more together then."

"Or maybe it's the fact that Valerie is a girl ...?"

I looked at her sharply. "What do you mean?"

Jade pushed her tray aside, and regarded me seriously. "I think you're freaked out over the fact that it's a girl you're dealing with."

I frowned, unsure of what to make of Jade's analysis. "Are you saying you don't think I'm gay?"

Jade laughed "Oh you're bloody queer, alright. I'm just saying you've never been with a girl before so you're scared you won't know what to do or how to act."

Bull's-eye. Score one for the Brit. "Maybe I should rent some lesbian porn or something." 

"Or something," Jade responded, getting up. "C'mon, time for class."

I picked up my tray and disposed of it, following Jade out of the dining hall. We both had World Literature at Engelbert Hall, which was across the street from the dining commons. "Are you going out with that guy you met at the club?" I asked, taking the spotlight off of myself. 

"Tonight, in fact. Wanna double?" Jade grinned. "When do you get to see Valerie again?"

"I don't know. She said she'd call me."

"Oof. Bad sign."

I frowned. "Is it?"

Jade pat me on the head. "I wouldn't worry too much about it," she said, pulling open the doors to the building and walking inside.

I caught up to her quickly. "Hold on. Why is it a bad sign?"

Jade was thoughtful for a moment. "Well maybe it isn't. I forget men and women live by different rules. So if she said she'd call then she probably will." 

I nodded, feeling momentarily relieved. "Wait, what if she doesn't call?"

Jade paused to smile before opening the door to our classroom. "Then you can quit freaking out," she smiled quickly, and walked inside. 

I frowned again, not particularly liking the sound of that. I sat down in my usual seat in the back, next to Jade. We were a few minutes early, so the room was still fairly empty. Our professor was writing her office hours on the board, along with her name and contact information. It was only the second week of school, so I'd only had this particular class twice before, but it seemed pretty interesting. I was a little less than thrilled about the mother load of novels we had to read, but I'd have to deal with that. 

Turning to Jade, I asked, "So how long should I wait for her call before abandoning all hope?"

Jade glanced at me, and shook her head. "Who do I look like, Sylvia Browne? I don't know."

I turned to the front of the class, propping my feet up on the seat in front of mine. I crossed my arms, and sat back, waiting for the professor to commence. 

Relationships were definitely complicated. Every time one of my questions was answered, a new one arose in its place. How were people supposed to get anywhere in love if nothing made any sense? Perhaps on my way to getting Flirting for Dummies I'd go ahead and pick up Relationships for Dummies as well. I figured that if the book indeed existed there would have to be a men's manual, women's manual, lesbian's manual, bisexual's manual, gay's manual, transgender's manual, transexual's manual ... It went on and on. But then, if everyone was reading from a different manual, how was anything supposed to get accomplished? This probably explained the popularity of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus books. Of course, that didn't help me at all. 

Perhaps I needed therapy. 



"Any calls?" I asked Nicole, dropping my keys and access card on my desk as I entered. I had to shout over the stereo. I had no idea what she was listening to now. 

She lowered the volume long enough to say, "No."

I sat at my desk and booted up the computer, hanging my bookbag on the back of my chair. It was nearly five, and I had finally finished with classes for the day. After checking my email, I planned on taking a nice long shower. I had a hell of a time falling asleep, and two hours of sleep just wasn't cutting it. Maybe after the shower I'd take a nap. 

The computer finished doing its thing, so I bestowed it my full attention. Once online, I headed straight for my mailbox, hoping Jessica had written me back. No such luck. In fact, I had only one message. 

Name                                         Subject
DarkCrystal61@hotmail.com
         hi ...

I had no idea whom the email was from, but I double-clicked on it anyway, curiosity getting the best of me. 

Hi, Alix. I know I said I'd call you, but I was just checking my mail at the computer lab here at school before my next class, and I thought I'd drop you a line to say hi. Oh I looked into Baldwin, and you were right, they have a great art program. I just have to apply for a scholarship and maybe next semester you'll see me around campus. Unless you'll feel like I'm stalking you, in which case I'll just stay where I am. Um. I'm babbling because I'm bored. I was thinking I need a dog. Maybe Thursday after my classes I'll go buy one. Want to join me in the search for the perfect puppy? You can buy us McDonald's afterwards. ;) 

~Val~


I caught myself grinning like an idiot, but I didn't particularly care. Hitting the reply button, I straightened up in my seat and began to type

Subject:     Re: hi ...

Val,
I almost deleted your email thinking it was junk mail or porn. Lucky for you that I didn't or you'd be pet-shopping solo. Thursday I have class until 2, and then I'm free, so I'd be more than happy to accompany you in the search for Mr. Perfect Puppy. I'll have to think on the McDonald's .. that's kind of pushing it. ;) Just let me know the time and place, and I'll be there. 

I told you Baldwin had a good art program. Definitely look into the scholarship. I'd love to have you around. Feel free to stalk me, no one ever does.

Alix


I sent the email, and sat back in the chair, feeling rather giddy. I turned around to find Nicole staring at me. "May I help you?"

Nicole turned off the music (if you could call it that), and regarded me curiously. "You're smiling like a loon," she observed. "Any particular reason?"

Not bothering to wipe the grin off my face I shut off the computer. "Can't a girl just be in a good mood?"

"Not when said girl is the Princess of Darkness."

"Princess of Darkness," I repeated. "I kind of like that." I rose from my chair and walked over to the closet to change into my bathrobe. "Her Gloominess is going to strip now, so please avert thy eyes lest you be blinded by her beauty."

She chuckled, and returned to whatever book she'd been reading. I'd never met anyone in my life who went through books at such record speeds as my beloved roommate. Sometimes I wondered if she read them at all or if she just used them as a shield against humanity. I doubt I'll ever know the answer.

I changed quickly, and headed to the girls' bathroom. Walking in nothing but a bathrobe down the hallways of the dorm was something to get used to. After three years, I barely even thought about it. 

My mind kept refocusing on Valerie's email, and the idea of shopping with her for a dog made me smile all over again. Too bad it was only Monday. Three more days to go, I thought, and proceeded to take my much-needed shower.



I'd been in the middle of a dream involving royalty and dogs, when the ringing phone brought my hazy mind to consciousness. Silently, I begged Nicole to answer the damn thing, and after a couple of rings, I heard her say, "Hello," in a soft voice. Pause. Then, "She's sleeping at the moment, and she looked pretty tired when she collapsed in her bed earlier so I don't know if I should wake her." Silence. "Okay, Val, I'll let her know you called. Bye." Click.

Val? My eyes popped open, and I sat up in bed, feeling woozy. "Was that Valerie?"

"Is that the girl you're going out with?" Nicole asked, aiming the receiver at my face. 

"I guess you could call it that," I responded, grabbing the phone from her grasp before she poked me in the eye with the antenna. I yawned, and sat up. "How long was I asleep?"

"Couple of hours. Are you going to call her back?" Her tone bordered on impatience, and I frowned up at her.

"Can I have a minute to wake up here?" 

"Well I have to leave for work in ten minutes, so I was hoping to get some eavesdropping time before then." She smiled innocently, and made her way back to her bed. "She sounds nice. You haven't told me much about her, you know?"

"Oh I know," I replied pointedly, playing with the receiver in my hand. 

"You're stalling," Nicole informed me, as though I wasn't already aware of the fact.

Without further ado, I pushed the 'talk' button on the dial pad, and punched in the number combination to Valerie's phone. Unconsciously, I held my breath as I waited for Valerie to pick up on the other end. 

Three rings later, I heard Valerie's distinct voice answer, "Yep?"

Momentarily I forgot how to speak. Shaking myself mentally, I finally found my mind buried under a pile of nervousness and senseless paranoia. Beside it was my voice. "Hi," I said, grateful to be speaking at last. "It's Alix." Remembering my own name was always a good sign.

"Oh hey," Valerie greeted, her tone brightening. "I got your email. I wrote you back, but I figure I'd call you anyway since I told you I would."

Lying back down, I felt my face break into a smile. "So what inspired this sudden need to get a pet?"

"Well, I was tossing and turning in my bed, unable to sleep and feeling rather lonely when it occurred to me that I was missing something in my life. And since I figure it's a bit soon in our relationship to ask you to move in with me, I thought a dog would make a nice substitute."

My mind was reeling, her words breaking off until all I heard was 'relationship' and 'move in with me' cycling around and around in my head. Pulling myself together, I replied, "What kind of dog do you have in mind?"

"Hmm. Tough to say. I have a feeling that when I see it, I'll know. Like love at first sight."

I relaxed a bit, knowing we were on relatively safe ground. You couldn't go wrong talking about dogs. "Something to keep your warm on those cold South Florida nights, no doubt."

"You're mocking me now."

I laughed. "Yeah, just a little."

She laughed too, and I couldn't help but notice what a beautiful sound that was. It made me wish that I was next to her so I could watch her face light up. "I have a small confession," she said suddenly.

"What's that?" I asked, watching Nicole wave goodbye on her way out to work. I waved back, and turned my attention back to the phone.

"I don't want to wait until Thursday to see you again."

I was overcome with relief, though I responded with a nonchalant, "Oh?"

"Do you think we can get together tomorrow?"

I ran my Tuesday schedule through my head, then cursed silently. "I can't. I have an audition tomorrow night and classes all day." I'd totally forgotten about the audition. 

"What's the audition for?" I searched her tone for a hint of disappointment, but found none. More than anything, she sounded interested. 

My excitement over the audition returned, and I couldn't believe I'd almost forgotten about it. "An improv troupe. We go around doing improvisations at different places."

"Sounds like fun. Do you have a good chance of getting in?"

"Hopefully. I don't want to get my hopes up."

"Good luck, or break a leg. Whichever applies."

I smiled into the phone. "Thanks." I was disappointed, though, because I really wanted to see her. "How about Wednesday?" I suggested. 

"I'm pulling a double shift at the club," she said regretfully.

I tried to keep the disappointment from my voice. "Guess we're back to Thursday."

"Guess so." This time I detected a sad note in her tone. "Hey, if we stay up all night talking on the phone, would it count as a third date?"

Laughing, I replied, "If you can keep me on the phone for more than half an hour, you'll win the record."

"Not a phone person?"

"Nope."

"I like a challenge," she replied. "So what do I get if I keep you on the phone for more than an hour?"

"The admiration and awe of all the others who failed before you," I answered, grinning to myself. 

Five hours later I got off the phone with her ... and I decided never to challenge her again.

 

Continued in part 3

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