The next few days passed quicker than Kris could have expected and slower than she'd hoped.
That first morning, waking disoriented to the sound of birds (birds), Kris found the smell of coffee waiting. Ellen was already up and about, dispensing advice as effectively from the living room sofa as from her office, occasionally refueling from the large pot of coffee on the kitchen counter.
"Help yourself," she nodded and turned back to the phone. "Carol. Tell Chacko to send a copy of the draft bill around as soon as it's read. They're so jumpy they're liable to ask for the power to shoot anyone who coughs. We need to think about the longer-term impact of these proposals and get some comments in, even if we know they're unlikely to listen."
The headlines felt like deja vu. The Ministry of Education had indeed closed the schools down, and Parliament was meeting in an emergency session to pass compulsory quarantine laws in a single seating, an unprecedented move. Singaporeans were urged to avoid crowded public places and to stay home if possible. Pharmacies were doing a brisk trade in face masks and malls were deserted. There was no mention of Janice's colleague in the papers.
"They'll want to be very sure what happened before they go public on that one. They've learnt that Jan's colleague was secretly dating a nurse who had been assigned to one of the wards where the first three women were. She is Malay. A Muslim. She came down with a mild form of SARS quite early on but did not name Peter as someone who might have been in contact with her, for fear of family disapproval She's now recovering, and they'll be talking to her to confirm the possible chain of contagion. If she confirms their guess, then Peter's case was not an anomaly." Ellen said.
"Is he better too?"
Ellen shook her head. "They're expecting the worst."
"Jan's team? They're taking extra measures. She wouldn't have come home last night if she hadn't thought there was a better than even chance that the explanation would hold."
Kris looked at the front page, which listed the mounting number of confirmed and suspected cases.
Ellen shrugged at her lifted eyebrow, "I know. It's not exactly full disclosure but they're caught between a rock and a hard place right now. Either way, no one's going to be fully satisfied with their decisions. I don't envy them."
Kris nodded, acknowledging the dilemma. The trite arguments for and against governmental transparency were easy to make but so hard to apply in an emergency like this, when information was changing every second and the implications of disclosure unclear. She herself had become a practitioner of deceit and half-truths these past few days.
She sat there, next to the woman she had been prepared just hours ago to betray, knowing that she continued to betray her, every moment, in her heart.
Janice had apparently been up before dawn and out the house, leaving only the hint of cloves behind. Ellen caught Kris's surreptitious look at the ashtray. "Doctors are the worst, aren't they? She tells everyone to quit, sensibly. And she's never been able to give them up herself."
"They have an interesting aroma," Kris commented, ignoring the accusing voice inside.
"They're kretek. Indonesian clove cigarettes. Sometimes, if you're not careful, the bits of clove mixed in with the tobacco catch fire, and spark."
You're telling me.
"Just little ones." Ellen assured.
I wouldn't be so sure.....
Ellen considered Kris somewhat curiously. "She said she'd try to make it back for dinner tonight, provided the all-clear is still valid."
Kris's heart lurched. "Oh."
"Grateful for small mercies, huh?" Ellen smiled, a little ruefully. And turned back to the sheaf of papers on her lap.
Left to her own devices, Kris returned to her room. She couldn't stop herself from peeping, voyeur-like, into the two open rooms. Both obviously well-lived-in. She guessed that the one with the untidy piles of books on the floor was Ellen's. But she had no confidence anymore that her assumptions would stand up to scrutiny. So many of them had been confounded in the last 48 hours.
They have separate bedrooms, her traitorous, hopeful heart murmured. But her mind, slowly returning to service, she was glad to see, banked the emotions down. Let it go, Janice had said. Let it go.
There were 104 unread emails in her inbox, two attaching new concepts for her urgent review. She settled down to work. It was better than dwelling on longing.
The idea came to her in the afternoon. Jo said she liked it too, when Kris called to propose it, although her mind didn't seem to be entirely on their conversation.
"Since I'm stuck here for a little while, how about we develop a piece on how Singapore is dealing with SARS?"
"Great fucking minds... I was just thinking the same thing. By the way, I'm going stir crazy stuck here, you shit. Madeleine was very amused when I called in this morning with the news that I would be working from home for a couple of days. She called me a scaredy-cat, the piker." Jo was strangely out of breath.
"Are you on the treadmill??"
"Nope. Grounded. .. umph."
"Who do you think we should get working on it? Can Shireen's outfit handle this?"
"Shireen? Ahh... Sure. I can ask her."
"There'd be no real hurry. I'm looking for a reflective piece, something that comes from the distance of time and perspective. We're not competing with the news networks on this one."
"I'll ask her and get back to you."
Kris could hear a noise in the background and something that sounded suspiciously like a yelp from Jo.
"Yes?" Again, that breathlessness.
"You don't have someone there with you, do you?"
"Well...." the embarrassed silence told its own story.
"Are you out of your mind? The whole point of this voluntary quarantine is to get you out of circulation. Couldn't you keep your brain out of your pants just this once?"
"It's not what you're thinking."
"You have no idea what I'm thinking," Kris fumed.
"You're a fine one to talk."
That shut Kris up for a while.
"Look. It's not as if I went out there spreading my love around last night...." There was a bump at that. "Ouch."
Kris heard some muffled whispering and then a loud sigh.
"I guess you would have found out sooner or later. It's ... erm... Shireen."
How could I have missed that? "Ohhhh." Your own brains were in your pants, idiot.
"We've been seeing each other for a few months now."
"Josephine Blackburn! All that talk...."
"Ancient history. Or at least, archived. Not current affairs." There was another strangled yelp. "Look. About the SARS documentary, I'm pretty sure Shireen will say yes."
"I bet you are." Kris remarked drily.
"We'll ... er... (yelp) ... work up a proposal, plug in some numbers ...."
"You do that."
"Tell you what. I'llcallyoubackinhalfanhour..."
The handset didn't quite find its way securely to the cradle, but Kris decided to be charitable and to hit the hang-up button on her own phone before she intruded any further.
Jo was as good as her word and called back about 20 minutes later.
"That was quick."
"You're the one that called."
"True. And I bring creative suggestions for your consideration, master."
"Go ahead," Kris absently scrolled down her inbox. Cindy had sent her a video clip from the CNN website that hysterically suggested that Singaporeans were dropping like flies.
"Shireen thinks we should focus on one or two really strong human stories."
"Yup. Makes sense."
"She has her team sussing some prospects out. Singaporeans from all walks of life. We can follow them through the next few weeks. Show how this affects them in different ways. She also thinks it would be good to get input from some non-Singaporeans. She thinks you would make a good profile."
Kris clicked her laptop shut.
"Yes, you. You came here on business, expecting to spend a week nailing down deals, before moving right along. Through a bizarre coincidence, you come into intimate contact...."
"Knock it off, Jo."
"... you come into contact with someone on the frontlines of the fight against SARS. You can't leave. You don't know if you might have been infected. You're apprehensive, you're pissed off, you're banging the good doctor."
"Oh come on. It's a good story, even without the sex, and you know it. Admit it."
"No? Just like that?"
"Yes, just like that. I don't do front-of-camera."
"Be a sport now."
"I'm serious. I'm not comfortable being the story, Jo. And that's that. "
"You admit it's a good idea."
"Yes," Kris sighed. "It's a good idea. And your very capable Shireen should be able to find someone else with a similar experience to profile. Like half the businessmen in the Hyatt coffee house."
"You're sure you won't reconsider?"
"You know what your problem is, Bretton?"
"I'm sure you're about to tell me."
"You like sitting on the sidelines and observing other people's lives. You'll use their nakedness but you won't show any flesh of your own. That's what we call a peeping tom where I come from." The affection in Jo's voice took the sting out of the words. "It's time you started believing that your own story's worth living and telling."
There was a short silence. Is it true? Have I never really lived in my own life? Well, if so, the last few days have certainly been a break from routine.
"Real deep, Jo."
"It's Shireen. She's got me reading up on yoga even, would you believe?"
"You are so busted."
"As if you're not," Jo chuckled. "Oh. By the way. The other project? The subject said yes. Shireen just has to tie up a few loose ends and then we can get you a detailed storyboard. Are you done reading the book? Tell me earlier rather than later if you have any ideas for angles. No rest for the wicked, as my mum used to say. Ta!"
It only struck Kris later, after she had sent off several more emails and retrieved the folder from her knapsack to resume reading, that Jo hadn't really given her grief about Janice after all.
I don't want this to be about sex. But there is no way I can be honest without talking about the sex.
Without the sex, we can pretend that these are friendships or arrangements for economic convenience. Two withered spinsters sharing a home together because they never got married, Or two former schoolmates staying over at each other's homes every night, long after graduation, unable to move out because of the societal assumption that filial children lived with their families till they left to set up legitimate families of their own.
In a culture where we don't talk of these things, it is remarkably easy for the blind eye to be turned. Because we are too polite to confront, we content ourselves with gossiping behind backs. The more inquisitive (or clueless) auntie at the check-out counter will ask, "Are you two sisters?" when our shopping cart contains only one box of toothpaste but two brands of brush. She vaguely senses the connection but attributes it to family resemblance, calling on a standard category for assistance. She probably doesn't even know a noun or adjective to use for what we have. And we prefer not to enlighten her. Older family members nod approvingly when she gives us a lift to the annual family dinner, then drives off, uninvited. "Such a good friend you have."
It is paradoxically easier for the gay and lesbian community to stay invisible and get on with our comfortable second-class lives here, than in societies where our flimsy disguises would have been made from the word go. We buy our day-to-day happiness with the currency of longer-term full recognition. How can we possibly continue this way and not disappear for good, eventually?
I know that there are many in the community who point to the gradual, creeping trickle of acceptance. They are not wrong. I too remember the time when the bi-monthly party was a weekly rendezvous in a dance-club. When only the eight (or 12, if you were lucky) women who knew of the clandestine assignation would turn up at the designated area near the serving bar and pretend they fit in with the other clubbers. I remember how grateful I was to find out I was not alone - eight others, oh joy! The growth of social gatherings, email lists, and gay-themed entertainment in the last decade must seem like progress compared to those times. It would. To someone who has come to believe that she deserves nothing.
This utter failure of self-acceptance permits the studious avoidance of glaring omissions, like the continued existence and application of sodomy laws, the unapologetic statements of our political leaders that such laws will not be repealed because they reflect the (correct, moral, right) norms of our Asian cultures, and the open (accepted) discrimination we would face in most work-places if we declared ourselves.
Kay seemed to allow no such fences around her entitlements.
She talked of sex openly. She had been with men and women. Not promiscuously, but without embarrassment. Some of her younger experiments had been accompanied by the use of narcotic substances. Acts that would be punishable with internment here. Or, if one was unlucky enough to be caught with specified quantities that raised irrebuttable assumptions of trafficking, possibly the death sentence. It was mind-blowing to someone with my sheltered story-book pretense of life.
She'd laughed at my bemusement and hero-worship. "Oh Boo." (we had our nicknames for each other). "I'm not suggesting you run right out and shoot up, darling. I'm not even proud of the fact that we did a little pot now and then. If I had those times to relive, I think I would prefer my senses unclouded and clear-eyed. But I'm not ashamed either. There's a thinner line between tobacco or alcohol and prohibited drugs than your government might admit. But the line's thicker than we sometimes fool ourselves too. The only distinction is that I refuse to let commercial interests decide where the line should be drawn for me. Some might argue it's a distinction without a difference, but at least it's mine."
It still seemed mind-blowing to me.
She brought sex up in the second week. "You do know where this is heading, don't you?" I blushed crimson and moved the uneaten pieces of steak around my plate. All evening, there had been a building throb of anticipation. She had invited me to dinner at a very nice restaurant, one I could not have afforded on my meager associate's pay but which posed no problems for Kay, her salary calculated in the strong US currency and, again to my unworldly perceptions, including an astronomical "local adjustment" to compensate her for what was viewed as a "hardship posting" in an undeveloped country. In hindsight I know that this, like so many other assumptions I made during that heady period, was vastly exaggerated.
Work had been an emotional strain. It was the day after my outburst at the tycoon and everyone was avoiding me, careful not to be associated with my leprous rebellion. Early in the morning, the partner had given me the dirtiest job in a trial. "Collate all the documents for filing. I want it done by the weekend." It was work you gave a paralegal, or an associate you wanted to punish.
I had been late getting to the restaurant, histaminic from document dust and nursing a headache that only grew as the night progressed. I had no appetite. I couldn't concentrate on what Kay was saying. My gaze would light upon some insignificant part of her anatomy and minutes would pass before I realized that I had been gaping. Her short, clipped fingernails, lightly tapping to her voice (she seldom kept totally still), had me dumb and drooling for hours. Or so it seemed. And all the time, the throb, throb, throb got worse, until I couldn't tell where it coming from.
I had never even come close to this sort of physical melt-down. It would have been terrifying, if I had any sensation left to devote to analysis.
"You do know where this is heading, don't you?" she asked tenderly. "But we don't have to, if you don't want to."
Want? What an inadequate, mealy word for the hunger inside me.
"I can't say where we will be in a month, a year." She was always so careful to be honest, to be fair. "I don't know where I'll be. The magazine could post me out tomorrow. I'm not saying I can't see more for us. I can. But I don't want you to do anything on the basis of promises I'm not in a position to make."
The hammering only increased.
"Hey," she said. "Look at me."
There is romantic drivel that we feed ourselves and then there is honest need. All my life till then, I had excused my inaction with the sentimental notion that my feelings for women were too pure and honorable to sully with physical expression. It was the sort of high romance celebrated in intellectual literature. The swain who yearned from afar, never touching love's object, faithful in self-imposed exile. It had been convenient to couch cowardice in those terms.
Kay wasn't a coward.
"I want you," she said. "I want your self-effacing humor and your inscrutable Asian punch-lines that I'm still not sure I understand. I want your lyrical sentimentality and your innocent idealism. But I also want to touch you, and give you pleasure, and have you touch me back."
"I can't finish this." I choked, the fork clanging so loudly as it dropped on the plate that I was sure everyone was looking at us, in that discrete upper-class restaurant where we might have been the only two lovers in the world or a pair among many.
"Leave it, then," she said. "And come with me?"
There was a time I was very shy about how quickly I came that night, unable to bring any sophistication or grace to that first real orgasm. But in this account, though it expose my naiveté, I now know I should be plain.
We walked up the hill to her apartment, the night air thankfully breezy. It cleared some of the headache. Or perhaps it was the adrenaline surging through me. I'm told it can have that effect.
Her rental three-room was bare in parts and furnished by some landlord without any aesthetic appreciation in others. I was so keyed up by then that the streetlamps seemed to cast psychedelic patterns on the walls, and I don't doubt I would have fallen but for her arm around me. We went straight to her bedroom, my consent long ago ceded. When she first kissed me, the buzzing in my head clamored into feverish hallucination. Through the fog, the crawling, crawling fog, I could see her lay me down, still fully clothed, on the bed. She started to unbutton my cheap work-shirt, the synthetic material slippery with sweat. I remember wondering if she would think my plain cotton underwear, a pair I had owned since university, laughable. Not sexy and sheer. Too childish. Then she moaned as she released the clasp and finally touched the soft skin on the side of my left breast. I arched up, forgetting to make any more excuses for myself, as I came.
She later joked that I was the easiest virgin she ever had. I can truly say, now, that I feel no shame in agreeing to that. Love should never have to.
How does one describe that state of hazy stupor when one is falling in love? When some moments cling and coalesce in your gut (when she's near, when she's there) and others just slough unheeded into oblivion.
For three nights, Kris floated.
Janice kept her word, returning each day in time for the evening meal. Something had changed between them. The visceral connection was still there. The desire, The flame that always smoldered underneath the civilized interaction. But Kris found, to her surprise, that there were many other communions. A common love for music. An eye for art. A deep commitment to social justice. A sly, sly humor.
They talked into the night, until Ellen would get sleepy and excuse herself first, leaving them alone. "It's okay. You two carry on. Don't let my old bones hold you back." Looking at Janice, "We'll speak in the morning, dear?" Janice's nod and loving smile a knife in Kris's heart.
The first night, Kris watched Ellen's door close with dread, not knowing if she had the discipline to honor the values she still held dear, suspicious of her own resolve. She kept her gaze from Janice, her breathing so shallow she might faint. Then she felt the gentle clasp on her hands.
"Tell me about it. The documentary that set you off on this brilliant career," Janice smiled, the teasing very welcome in the midst of all the self-reproach. "It will be alright," she continued, answering the thought Kris had not spoken, in that uncanny way of hers. "Tell me. I want to know everything about you."
And it was. Alright. Against every logical prediction.
It was alright, and magical, and torture.
They didn't kiss, even though Kris could see (so attune now) that Janice wanted her too. Just as desperately. They knew, without speaking, that there were some lines they had to respect, or risk being consumed. But it would have been too much to expect their eyes to refrain from touching. their words to eschew embrace. And the control did slip at times. When Janice would brush a lazy fingertip along her arm and flood her. Or when Kris's thigh would press accidentally against Janice's bare legs. And Janice would close her eyes, clench her fists and wait. Holding. Holding. Till the madness passed. For the moment.
Hours after midnight, the candles had burnt into waxy puddles and they were still sitting in the darkness. Kris could sense the change in the rhythm of Janice's heartbeat. Quickened. Unsteady. All night, they had talked openly of how they felt about many things. Kris learnt that Janice found solace in Bach, "I know. Most people accuse him of being cold and clinical. Too much thinking in those three-part inventions. But when the harmonies sing, I am... elevated... as if on a different plane." She mocked her own sentimentality with a hand gesture that came so close to Kris's cheek that Kris could have simply leaned into it and been lost.
And yet they had not really spoken. They had not talked of the present, nor of what the present meant for Janice's past with Ellen. They really must have an open relationship, Kris thought. How else could Janice sit there, the thin grasp on longing always threatening to surrender, without seeming to feel any guilt? Shyness, yes. Caution, yes. But not guilt.
Kris felt she had no standing to ask. And Janice, the quiet reserve maddeningly in place, did not volunteer.
So Kris sat, reining her own heartbeat in, responding to Janice in that mindless way she now accepted as inevitable. One hand pressed against the spreading damp in her shorts, trying to contain herself, knowing she should walk away.
"Gosh. Look at the time. It's been fun but I guess I should turn in." She pretended to yawn, keeping her tone light, accenting "fun", breaking the shared rhythm. "I don't know how you do this. Have you slept at all since we met?"
She felt Janice flinch and withdraw. The response held irony, "Actually sleep, you mean?" she asked. "Not much."
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I've lain awake wanting you too. But I'm so afraid of what that means.
Kris got up.
"I think I'll stay here just a little longer. Unwind a bit." The invisible sheath which had held Janice's exhaustion at bay all evening had disintegrated in an instant. She was slumped now, the eyelids fluttering imperceptibly, the hands that lit the cigarette unsteady.
Kris only turned when she heard the faint cough, quickly silenced. The plume of smoke was silver in the faint moonlight, but Janice's face looked grey.
The second night, Jo and Shireen came to dinner too, Jo bursting into the room wearing a surgical mask and making silly. Probably to hide her embarrassment from having her backside pinched, very deliberately, by the merciless Shireen, who seemed to be having a lot less trouble with the fact that their cover had been blown than her fair-haired partner.
"You don't mind if we have Jo and Shireen over, do you?" Ellen had asked at five, looking incongruously domestic with an apron on and her handsfree earpiece clipped to her collar so that she should still take phone-calls while cooking.
"Do you need any help with that?" Kris stuttered, unsure how to deal with Ellen's easy knowledge, worried what other information she might be hiding behind the open gaze.
"Of course not. It's been years since I've had the luxury of cooking dinner three nights in a row. I'm having a blast. You go read your scripts."
Over chicken stew and rice, Jo told some good Janice stories.
"What about the time the doc screwed up on directions and ended up in an outlying housing estate instead of the pub where we were supposed to meet?"
Janice threw her hands up in surrender while Kris, beside her, resisted the urge to cup the small, perfect breast outlined under the tattered old t-shirt. "Guilty. Everyone knows I'm directionally challenged."
"When we tracked her down hours later, she was at the neighborhood community centre and had agreed to give free clinical consultations for the old folks in the area...."
"She's a sucker for hard luck cases." Ellen butted in.
"... for the next 3 years!" Jo concluded.
Everyone laughed and Kris made the mistake of slapping Janice on the back affectionately. And had to bite her tongue till it bled when the shock of that simple touch pierced through her groin and almost sent her into orgasm. Janice had a sudden coughing fit and the others teased Kris about her violent behavior. So she had some reason, at least, for the purple blush that stayed on her face and that had nothing to do with the teasing and everything to do with Janice's hand, camouflaged by table-cloth, taut with warning and understanding, resting on her inner thigh.
She didn't want to think too deeply about whether Jo and Shireen were really taken in. Nor did she feel up to analyzing the carefully neutral look on Ellen's face as Jo dredged up yet one more tale to regale them with.
There was another awkward moment when Kris asked Ellen what should have been an uncomplicated question, "Was it tough work all these years running a law firm on your own?"
Everyone went still and, for the first time since that afternoon when it all began, she felt something like anger coming from Janice.
Then Shireen smoothly interjected, "Ah. Ellen's been modest again." The laughter, from Ellen and Jo but, conspicuously, not Janice, was slightly strained. "This lady is something of a legend in the legal community. She built up, from scratch, one of our most successful firms. At last count, there were 65 lawyers at her beck and call."
"And boy, did she beck and call," Jo winked.
"Not huge by American standards, of course," Shireen continued, "but pretty decent here. "
"This year," Ellen explained, "I ... erm.... decided to take an early retirement and slow the pace down slightly. Pick the kinds of cases I wanted to do and only those. My partners and I agreed that they should buy me out and keep the goodwill in the firm's name, as well as the more conventional clients. You know, the price-gouging telcos I was telling you about?"
"No one wanted her to leave," Janice said, and it wasn't clear she meant Ellen's partners.
"It was for the best." Ellen said firmly. "I'm enjoying the flexibility. Don't complain just because you secretly hate having to eat the meals I have the time to cook now."
Janice didn't answer, which was just as well because Kris didn't think she could have borne it if she'd given voice to the hurt in her eyes.
Later, Kris excused herself and, in the bathroom, almost died of embarrassment and longing when she saw the dark stain of her desire on her underwear. She was so messed up. The constant tug between uncontrolled hunger and even less controllable tenderness was tearing her up inside.
When she returned, the others were clearing the dishes. Jo was deep in conversation with Ellen in the kitchen. Janice and Shireen were setting the living room coffee table for tea and dessert. They both started, looking a little guilty when Kris walked in. From the kitchen, Kris thought she heard Jo ask, "How much have you told her?", before Ellen put a cautioning hand on her forearm.
"Ice-cream or cheesecake?" Shireen asked. And the little gathering returned to safer ground.
The third night, Friday, Ellen was yawning by ten.
Dinner had started late because Janice had been held up at work. When she'd returned, long after the food was cold from waiting, the now familiar silk shirt was more crumpled than usual, the frown on the forehead more deep-etched, taking longer to ease. Still, Kris could see that other intent, never far away, take shape in her eyes, as she gave Kris a piercing look, making hurried apologies on her way to her room, "Go ahead. You shouldn't have waited. I'll just freshen up and be right out."
Kris wanted to throw her down on the floor and rip the clothes from her, drawing the bow undone on the soft, flowing pants, pulling them off.
She helped Ellen reheat the spicy lamb curry in the microwave instead.
"Jo is setting up a meeting with my subject next week." Kris informed Ellen and Janice later. With the official go-ahead from Shireen, the topic of Kris's business in Singapore had been taken off the embargo list and Jo had briefly filled Ellen and Janice in at dinner the previous evening. Kris could tell that Ellen and Janice probably knew who the subject was but they had diplomatically refrained from asking more than Jo was prepared to tell.
Janice started, "Oh!" She looked Kris, then at Ellen for support. "I'm not sure that's safe."
"Don't worry. We'll wait till the ten days is officially up. No unnecessary risks."
"Oh. So you won't be leaving tomorrow?"
"Cancelled the booking. It'd be silly to make another trip later when I can stay on and take care of everything this time around." Was that relief?
No, no. It's not just the work I'm staying for. Don't you know that by now?
Janice smiled, "Aren't you worried your mom will bring a posse to get you if we keep you here much longer?"
"I'm counting on Auntie Ellen to head her off at the pass," Kris quipped, disproportionately gladdened by Janice's low, sensuous chuckle.
"Auntie Ellen is too tired tonight. Wake me up for hero-duty tomorrow." Ellen stretched, giving the dining table one last wipe and turning off the kitchen lights. "Don't let her stay up too late," she told Kris, "Unlike me, she doesn't realize we can't all be super-heroes." Don't worry. I'll look after her. I love her too.
Janice was on the love seat, lighting up the familiar clove cigarette. They had not bothered with the candles this time. The dark was more intimate. Ellen was right. In just the last three days, Janice had lost more weight off the already slender frame. The leftover golden tan didn't hide the translucence of the gossamer skin beneath her jaw, where the pulse of determination and courage and, yes, desire, beat with seemingly superhuman control. Kris felt a twinge of culpability, knowing that she had added to the burdens under which Janice labored, buoyed, it seemed, only by sheer will.
"How many have you had today?"
"Too many," Janice admitted, "Yes. I am a terrible fraud. But I think everyone already knows that."
"You are a fraud. In more ways than one. I've seen through you." Kris's temerity surprised even herself.
The light in the master bathroom clicked off. The sound of Ellen's bed creaking interrupted the silence momentarily. Then quietness resumed.
Finally, Janice took up her challenge, "What do you mean?"
"Doctors aren't really that bad with Maths, are they? Especially simple arithmetic."
Kris sensed rather than saw the smile spread over Janice's face.
"Ah. Now you get it. How on earth do you keep those project budgets balanced?"
"Microsoft has some redeeming features. Excel is the only one I can think of right now."
They laughed companionably. It was nice to share some less-complicated moments. When the warm comfort of friendship wasn't relegated to the edge of heated craving.
"So when does the period really end?"
"Tonight?" Kris squeaked. Her pulse suddenly forgot the benefits of friendly comfort and started racing at breakneck speed.
"Tonight." Janice repeated, the smile still twinkling in her tone.
"Why didn't you say so earlier?"
"I was hoping it might be like this."
"Yes. Just the two of us. Alone." The way Janice said "alone", her voice dropping to a groan, low and promising, sobered and stoked them both simultaneously.
"My only contact with the women was ten days ago, a little after they were first admitted, before the media frenzy caught on. By the time Peter first showed symptoms, which is when the disease is contagious, the hospital was already on red alert and we were scrupulous about observing precautions. Assuming I get through what's left of today without mishap, I'm probably out of danger and you were never in any."
Well, that depends on what you mean by danger.
"From SARS, at least," Janice qualified, stubbing out the cigarette and disappearing into the shadows.
Kris let that sink in for a while, wondering what was going through Janice's mind. It's not fair. She can read every crazy thought of mine and I never know where I stand with her.
Something about the night made her reckless. She knew that this latest news resolved nothing of the treacherous personal issues that still stood in their way. But she had to trust herself sometime. And everything she had seen about Janice told her that, whatever truth might emerge, this fine principled woman would not stoop to petty betrayal. She could not. Who am I to judge what enters into a relationship? I spend my life thinking that I have chosen how I wish to love, but maybe I fell into those choices as easily as the next person. Perhaps, when those choices have such immediate and tangible consequences, two people can commit to an honest love that does not admit to any easy model, borrowing from no one.
As for herself, maybe it really was time she stepped into her own skin fully.
She gave in to reckless honesty.
"Do we wait till midnight, then?" she asked boldly.
"That ... might.... not.... quite.... work." Janice said slowly.
Kris wanted to scream. Then when? When?
She was so wrapped up in her frustration that she didn't feel Janice till her lips were on hers.
"I don't know about you. But I can't wait till midnight, sweetheart." That endearment again, this time spoken against her mouth, asking for entry.
Kris didn't resist. Come in. Come in everywhere. I can't keep any part of myself from you.
"Ah, sweetheart." She heard one more time. Then she let Janice in.
Kris was afraid Janice might break, she felt so light and insubstantial in her arms when Kris lifted her and placed her on the bed, cursing the creak of springs, loving the little, helpless sounds Janice made whenever they were skin to skin. Then the demanding tongue thrust deep into her mouth again, incredibly strong, brooking no disagreement, scrambling her synapses and she decided that Janice could probably take care of herself. Feeling, the heady madness rush to her brain, she wasn't so sure she could say the same.
They had chosen Kris's room by unsaid agreement. Janice had pushed Kris in, almost playful. She closed the door behind them and leaned back against it, taking Kris's hand and easing it into her shorts. Her mound was smooth and very lightly-haired, the tiny nub hiding within the delicate lips. She guided Kris's fingers through the viscous fluid that lined them, slickly welcoming. Her eyes went wide with pleasure when Kris's index finger glided past her opening to the little pucker of muscle behind. It trembled and flexed, then contracted.
"Oh God." she gasped, stilling Kris's hand a little, then grinned with unrestrained happiness. "The things you do to me."
"No more than you do to me," Kris murmured as the shared memory of the last time they had been together like this, the roles inverted, engulfed them both.
They stood like that for a while, Kris's hand still cupping her gently, caressing lightly, liking the shiver that played over her face with each stroke.
"Does it bother you?" Janice asked, as always reading Kris's mind. Her eyes, unfocussed with desire, flicked towards the direction of Ellen's room.
It kills me.
"Yes," Kris admitted honestly.
"Don't let it. Please."
"How can I not?"
"I think she already knows. I am not very good at hiding how I feel from her."
Just from me? Kris thought, then saw the emotion in Janice's eyes and realized that she was being churlish.
"I was going to tell her. There just hasn't seemed to be time. And ...." running a finger, almost absently, over Kris's straining nipples, "I wasn't sure, for a while, what you wanted...."
You. Only you.
You don't know how much I want to.
"It will be alright. She.... We ... love each other too much for this to get in the way. Whatever happens."
It should have hurt, but all it felt was right.
"What do you want, Kris?" her name like honey on Janice's tongue.
And so she stepped in.
"You. Only you."
The dam broke.
They were soft and tender. They were rough and eager.
Janice impatiently pulled her own shirt off, the slender body shining with the sheen of perspiration, the perfect breasts peaked and tight. Kris lifted her, the contact slipping slightly from her hand, still wet with Janice. Their mouth locked together, tasting and sharing, taking and submitting. Kris drew back, straddling Janice's thighs. "Let me." Janice said, reaching up and raising the t-shirt over Kris's head. Her tongue flicked and circled. She pressed her own breasts, wet from Kris's mouth, into Kris's body, groaning as the touch excited her into frantically rubbing herself her against Kris's chest. Kris fell back, unable to hold herself up, the tables turned. Janice was on top of her now, moving her body, suspended a hair's breath above Kris, up and down her, nipple brushing nipple, sweat sliding on sweat.
She felt her shorts being pulled off her, then Janice's hand on her sex. She spread her legs, more eager than she had ever been, needing no more foreplay, hating every moment's delay. She lifted her knees, tensing her hips for that sweet entry, wondering why Janice hesitated. "So open." Janice marveled. "For me?" Kris grunted her assent. She had been beyond words for a lifetime. And then the thrusts began, filling her entirely, impaling her heart so that it beat only when Janice allowed, now quick, now slow, till she burst in a tidal wave that beat again and again against her soul.
When she stopped shaking, she realized that Janice had shifted so that she was on Kris's left thigh, the muscles still sparking uncontrollably from the after-shocks. Janice lowered a breast to Kris's lips, her urgent movements bathing Kris's leg with wet. Kris took the nipple in, feeling the movements stop and Janice's body lift from her in the sudden shock of pleasure. Kris brought one hand between them, seeking Janice's clit, knowing what she would find. Her other hand teased Janice's nipple in time with her tongue. Janice's arms strained with the effort of holding herself up, her body jerking at Kris's command.
"I can't ...." Janice moaned, her shoulders starting to collapse.
Kris turned her over then, finding the little nub engorged, no longer hiding. She tried to control their rhythm but her fingers kept slipping in Janice's arousal, kept being twisted from side to side by Janice's fevered movements. She licked her way down Janice's body, slowing her fingers in an effort to prolong the pleasure for her lover. But when her tongue slid past the triangle of hair and tasted the glisten, she lost her head. She heard her own moans join Janice's as her orgasm started to build again.
Then Janice stilled and lifted off the bed, every muscle hard with concentration. Kris flicked her tongue once more over Janice's clit, and pushed one hand into her own arousal, waiting for Janice's spasms to start, ready to join her. The spurt of liquid gushing in her mouth, slightly salty, slightly bitter, was so unexpected and so exciting that her fingers jerked deep into herself at the shock, totally out of control, as they came together.
"That was amazing. It's never happened to me before," Janice said shyly, one warm finger tracing a line from below Kris's breast to her navel. At Kris's skeptical look, "I don't mean I've never had sex before, idiot. "
"I didn't think so."
"Just the ...." she blushed a delightful pink.
"You mean the ...."
"It's a first for me too. I'd heard that it happens for some women but I'd always thought it was a bit of an urban legend."
"Since you hadn't come across it in your checkered sexual past." The tone was light but slightly wistful.
"Hey. My past has hardly been checkered." Kris confessed, "I'm afraid you got yourself a lover who doesn't exactly have a long, or particularly colorful, resume."
"I wouldn't have been able to guess."
It was Kris's turn to blush. "I'm not usually like this. I don't usually let go.... But with you, I'm ....", she searched for the words to explain, ".... cast adrift from every assumption and the only thing I can hang on to is how you make me feel."
"I'm glad," Janice whispered, the finger now close enough that Kris's clit had started to twitch again.
"There's really only been one other person for me." Janice admitted quietly, the finger still playing.
The words poured over Kris like an icy bucket of water. How could she have forgotten Ellen? She pulled away from Janice's hand,
"Don't you need to get up early in the morning?" she muttered.
Janice's eyes clouded with hurt.
"Nothing. I just thought you might be tired. After all this."
Janice looked at her, puzzled, trying to read her. But Kris was ready and had every wall in place.
Even then, Janice came close. "It was over a long time ago, Kris."
How can you say that, when we have just made love here, in the home you share together? And then, angry. Leave her. I don't know how to share you and still stay alive.
Kris remained silent and Janice gave up after a while, the shutters coming down over her own expression.
"It has been a tiring week."
She slowly retrieved her clothes from the floor where they had fallen. When Janice pulled the t-shirt over her body, rubbing against the still swollen breasts, Kris felt the shot of electricity as if the t-shirt had grazed her own nipples.
"Rest well." Kris said, feeling that she had to make up, somehow, for her behavior but unwilling still, after all that had happened, to expose her entire heart.
"You too." Janice smiled, almost against her will it seemed. "Will we ... talk ...in the morning?"
"Count on it." Kris said with false bravado.
Janice waited. Her hand against the door-jamb shook a little and a tremor ran through her body. The flush was still on her face.
"Goodnight, sweetheart," she said, so lovingly that Kris imagined the kiss on her forehead.
The door closed and Kris squeezed her eyes to shut out the pain.
She felt the thump of Janice's collapse in her gut before she heard it in the hall-way.
The procedure required that they call a special number and wait for the ambulance which would take Janice to the hospital set aside for suspected SARS cases.
"Why don't we just drive her there?" Kris shouted, not caring that Ellen was staring at her wild-eyed distress with surprise.
"This is what they've worked out to be the safest way, Kris. These ambulances are equipped to minimize the risk of spread. Their staff are trained in what to do. I know you mean well, but this is not the time to do anything foolhardy."
Kris had rushed out into the hall-way immediately after she heard the fall to find Janice in a crumpled heap, lying across the doorway of her own bedroom. She was in a dead faint, her brow slightly feverish.
Beside herself with guilt and fear, she had thumped on Ellen's door. Together they had carried the unconscious woman to her bed, even though Kris wished, with bitter-sweet longing, that she could have swept her up into her own arms.
Ellen had taken Janice's temperature and confirmed that she was running a fever close to the crucial 38.5° Centigrade mark.
"I think we better get her to the hospital. It's probably not SARS but, with her background, it's not worth taking the chance." Ellen set about making the calls briskly, before returning to Janice's room and sitting by the bedside, stroking her arm.
Shut out from usefulness, locked in her own anxiety, Kris paced in the living room. The clock said it was 4 a.m., deep in the stillest, most peaceful part of the night. Kris could find no comfort anywhere.
The ambulance arrived at 4.15 pm, the paramedics obviously familiar with the process and efficiently businesslike. They cast curious looks at the three women, perhaps wondering about sleeping arrangements. Although she knew she had no reason to be embarrassed, Kris couldn't stop herself from cringing at the looks. They made her feel abnormal, wrong. Yes. I love her, she wanted to scream. What's wrong with that?
Janice had come to and was reassuringly cross at the fuss everyone was making over her. "Nothing wrong with me that a little rest won't cure," she protested.
"Then you won't mind their doing some tests on you." Ellen retorted.
"There's nothing the tests can confirm. There's no clinical diagnostic. The only thing they can do is monitor my temperature and ask whether I've come into contact with anyone with SARS. We know the answer to the question and we can monitor my temperature just as well here."
The paramedics were wheeling Janice through the leaving room. She paled suddenly as a wave of nausea caught her unawares.
"Hush up." Ellen said, and Janice obeyed. Ellen followed the wheelchair.
Kris grabbed her knapsack and started out as well.
The head paramedic, an officious Chinese man, looked at them both with suspicion. Behind him, in the driveway, his colleagues were already about to shut the doors on Janice.
"Only immediate family members allowed," he said. "You cannot come."
'What do you mean?" Kris demanded. "She needs us."
"New safety rules. Not just for SARS patients. Only immediate family members allowed to visit. Limited to three people."
"But there are only two of us!" Kris fumed.
"The patient can also nominate. But must have proof of relationship."
Kris wanted to burst at the stupidity of these restrictions.
"It's OK." Ellen said to Kris, her expression understanding. "It can't be helped. It's the way things are here. " To the paramedic, she said, "I'm coming. I'm her official guardian."
He stood there unblinking.
"Must have proof of relationship," he repeated.
Ellen snapped testily, "Of course I have proof of relationship." She handed him a document, which he read dubiously.
"OK." He finally said. "Come on, lah. Better hurry."
Then they were both out the door.
It was 4.23 a.m. in the morning.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Return to the Academy