My apologies for the delay – real life has been busy. Thanks to everyone who urged me to continue the story. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
FEEL LIKE A WOMAN (6)
Elena had shut them out with her quiet words and wounded exit. The shutters might have dropped over her eyes with practiced ease, turning them a cool blue, but the angry hurt in her voice wobbled through.
Kelli's ears rang with, "Just leave." It echoed and bounced from her ears to her heart, burning a hole into her chest that felt as empty as a wasteland, dead to all feeling. The pain of seeing Elena in Claire's arms had decimated her early exuberance but it was the jumble of emotions that ran across Elena's face before unforgiveness slammed down, culminating in Elena's rejection that replayed in her mind, cutting her again and again. Beautiful features had changed from worry to confusion, then anger and finally, nothing. It was the blank façade that scared Kelli the most – she could see nothing of Elena in that face.
After last night, her expectations had flown so high she was walking on air. She missed the joy in Elena's beautiful smile, the unguarded desire in her eyes, and the tentative hope that bound and flared between them. She believed that Elena was not just any other woman. She had been ready to commit to the one who had providently slipped into her life, and wrapped her in golden tresses warm and strong as silk.
Kelli had never forgotten how it felt when Elena disappeared that first time and she never wanted to again. There was so much she wanted to show her but as Elena turned her back, loss dripped freezing dread into her veins. She felt so empty.
As Kelli's gaze was fixed on the doorway that had taken Elena, Claire, for the first time, took in Kelli's appearance curiously. The woman was slim and lean muscled, with slightly tousled hair atop a well-cut face, and casually attired in jeans and a sport top. Kelli was the kind of woman who didn't have to work hard to look good – Claire could appreciate that even as she envied her. But the proud woman she had met last night now stood dejected, with shoulders slumped and her hands hanging loosely at her side. Kelli had the same forsaken look on her face that had flashed across Elena's before it was wiped away. Guilt stormed into Claire's conscience as she recalled Elena's delight upon hearing Kelli's voice; it was radically different from the greeting she had received at the door, and now due to her intervention, Elena's happiness was forfeit all because she hadn't been able to rein in her jealousy.
Yet she had succumbed easily to mischief to get her own back on Kelli for her arrogance and for being Elena's choice. She hadn't thought about her actions when she had Elena pinned to the wall nor when she kissed her again, the cruel satisfaction she wanted to assuage wiped any emotional balance she might've had. As a result, the finality of Elena's words meant just that. Once Elena made up her mind, there were no second chances for any of them.
"Well, you royally fucked that up," Claire said. Her words must have affected Kelli as her posture drooped, beaten. Kelli turned towards her with defeated eyes and clenched fists.
"I told you to stay away from her." Claire tried for venom in her tone but it came out flat. The consequences of her stunt had cost her the last vestiges of Elena's respect and it overshadowed any victory she might have achieved. Vindictiveness came too easily where it concerned Elena, possibly stemming from when they lived through their dying relationship that Elena didn't even try to save. She had always felt like a poor second to her family fortune, then further behind Andrew. It enraged her that now Elena was putting all that aside for a unsuitable lover, an admitted playgirl, making Claire appear like an unimportant part of her life.
"She asked me to ... she wanted me to come over." Soft voiced, Kelli shook her head trying to make sense of happiness slipping through her fingers. Paradise scythed by her own insecurities.
She looked around the room she had hastily followed Elena into. It was brightly lit under a skylight, filled with toys and colourful furnishings, and had the essentials for toddler care. She has a son. She couldn't tell me before because she didn't trust me. A bottle of baby talc stood on the nappy table. The sight triggered a flood of memories. Oh, how she remembered. The first time she had pressed her face into Elena's hair and ran her hands down her bare body, the homey scent of talc had etched itself into the experience of loving Elena.
"To break it off. She didn't mean for you to see us like that, buddy. We kissed and the whole thing just got out of hand. She still wants me." Claire couldn't stop twisting the proverbial knife, perversely enjoying Kelli's discomfort, to teach her a lesson for fucking around. She would protect Elena for her own good.
"Elena has everything she needs right here." She patted the table she was leaning on heavily. "You were a pleasant distraction, I'm sure, since that's what you're good for, but she was only trying to make me jealous. For Andrew's sake, she needs someone more stable, someone who can be a good parent, and we both know that's not something you can do."
Kelli stiffened as Claire's words hit home like hot pokers. Denial almost slipped from her lips but proof was not on her side. She had no experience and no idea of Elena's life beyond the bedroom, but even if she did, her role had been relegated. She was nothing more than a stud, a roll in the hay, a one-off affair. She had been a fool to try for more.
She stared at Claire, tight lipped, until the other woman flinched. Kelli wanted to hurt someone right now. She walked up and stood nose to nose with the bitch, and said, "If you ever do anything to hurt her again, I will hunt you down and break your balls. You don't deserve her." She held Claire's gaze until she got a submissive nod.
Pivoting on her heel, Kelli walked out steadily but barely held it together. Her frustration had created a blinding headache that gained intensity with each step away from the gaily painted house. She got into a passing taxi, gave her destination, and closed her eyes as she put her head back. In spite of her threat, she hoped to never see either Claire or Elena again.
The house was dark and unexpectedly quiet when it wasn't due to be so. Gloria flicked on the lights as soon as she let herself in with the spare keys, noting that the interior was in its usual state and there were no surprises hiding behind the doors. It was uncommon for Elena to not inform her of her plans if she was going out. Gloria checked the fridge door for a note or in any of the usual places. Nothing.
Telling herself to stay calm, she climbed the stairs and made a beeline for Andrew's room only to find an empty cot, leaving only one other room she could search. She sighed a breath of relief when she saw Andrew sitting up on the bed with Elena by the side. He smiled and raised his arms when he saw her and Gloria complied. She sat on the bed, baby in her lap, and waited for Elena to wake up.
Weak tugs on her hair roused Elena from her tears induced sleep. As she lifted her head, the crick in her neck reminded her of her position on the floor, and the bruise Claire had inflicted in a betrayal of trust. She swept her hair from her face and sniffled. Kelli had broken their fledgling trust too. She had toyed with her emotions and used her obvious attraction to string her along, reverting to type at the crucial moment.
Gloria waited for Elena to compose herself, wiping the dried tears from her face if not the strain. "You didn't answer the phone so I came up."
Groaning, Elena fell onto her back and stretched. "Is Claire still here?"
"No, there's no one downstairs." She watched as Elena stumbled to her feet and used the wall to support herself all the way into the ensuite. "What happened?" Gloria asked, frowning. Elena looked like death warmed over.
An inordinate silence followed. "Elena?" Gloria carried Andrew into the bathroom to find his mother sitting on the toilet with her face covered by a towel.
"I'm such a mess." Elena said. When she whipped the towel off, her colour was high, her cheeks and eyes red. She shook her head. "He shouldn't see me like this."
Gloria sat by her side. "I don't think he minds, coz he loves his mommy and she loves him." She smiled at her own funny voice but stopped when Elena burst into soft tears.
"Ah, god. I'm a fool." The blonde choked out.
"Is that what Claire told you? Because I don't think that woman is all there when it comes to you."
"Maybe. I don't know. I don't really care. She's out of my life for good, and so is Kelli."
"Kelli was here?" Elena nodded miserably. "And Claire too?" Elena's face fell even more. "I see where this is going." Gloria intuited sagely.
Elena dropped her eyes and started relaying everything that had occurred.
Silence, in the dark, can suffocate in layers. Eyes wide open but sightless in the moonless night, Kelli lay curled on the papasan in her apartment. The throbbing in her head had lessened with a dose of pills but it lay in waiting behind the veil of numbness. It was all she could concentrate on - the steady discomfort that seemed to bring together her other pains until she was a wrecked mass of raw emotion.
She had heard of this, this eternal heartache that made lovers blind tortured creatures. She had sympathized, even laughed at it, when others suffered through pangs of cruel love, even as she vowed never to be caught herself. Until now, the harshest injury she had faced were ligament tears and torn muscles. Nothing could have prepared her for this.
Kelli struggled for a clear breath, surprised when it came easily enough considering the leaden pressure sitting in her chest. She wasn't dead or dying but the way she felt inside she might as well have been. Between her mind replaying the events of the day and her heart aching with helpless guilt, she lay cushioned on a futon but caught in an emotional whirlpool. Everything Kelli could recall about Elena, from the moment she first saw her in the bookstore to when she knew she wanted to be by her side, seemed to be about what she had wanted. She had wanted Elena that afternoon and she hadn't stopped wanting her ever since.
I could have treated her better. God, what was I thinking pawing her like that in public. I can't seem to not have her in my arms every time. Kelli rubbed her face on the nearest surface. She is so beautiful. Figures her son would be cute too.
His small cherubic face dotted with big blue eyes had all the hallmarks of Elena's lineage, right down to the open curiousity when he regarded her for a moment before he buried his face in his mother's shoulder. It angered her that Claire would now be co-raising him. She hated that Claire would taint his innocence as he grew up - not that Elena had a super alternative in her. If she hadn't been caught up in her baser instincts, acting irresistible like, if she had only told Elena how her absence drove her crazy, or tried harder to find out more about her life. It was twisted irony that the woman who made her want more, feel more, was the one who couldn't get past her reputation. The unmistakable rejection in Elena's face had shamed her.
Kelli stifled a helpless whimper. God, it hurt. Heaven was holding Elena, ambrosia was tasting her, loving her, it seems, would be hell. And she didn't know what to do to make it stop.
"Mrs H!" Gloria exclaimed, surprised by the unexpected visitor on Elena's doorstep.
Elena's mother, impeccably attired in a button down dress, pearl necklace and hat on short aged blond head, patiently waited for the shock to wear off. "Hello, Gloria. How lovely to see you here."
"You too, Mrs H. Elena didn't say you were coming." Gloria looked beyond the gate to no one other than the chauffer.
"I apologise for not calling first. Do you think she would mind if I came inside?" Bettina Hammond was not a woman who needed to ask for anything but her request was solicitious nonetheless. She was here to see her youngest daughter on an unscheduled visit.
"Sure." Gloria held the door open for Elena's mother, who walked in stately. "Sorry about the toys and uh, mess."
Bettina took in the bright walls and dark furniture. The place was unchanged other than with more toys around the place and more cushions too. The breakable decorative pieces had all disappeared. She turned to Gloria and said, "I've raised five children, my dear. This looks perfectly fine to me." She smiled. "Now, where is that daughter of mine?"
"In the back." Gloria led the way, saying softly, "She hasn't been herself lately."
Elena's mother threw her a sharp glance but before she could ask, her daughter's voice queried.
"Your mom's here."
"Mother?" Elena said, wiping her hands on a towel. She frowned at the surprise visit – her mother rarely dropped by and never without a pre-arranged phone call. She kissed her mother on the cheek. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, darling. We're all fine." Everyone except you, dearest. A moment's warning was just enough for Bettina to mask her personal reaction at the shocking weariness painted all over Elena's visage. It was in the dullness of her wayward hair and the looser than usual fit of her home gear. Her daughter was not of willowy build, some might even have described her as womanly or lush – but neither of which would have been close to the way she looked at the moment. Bettina wondered what had happened to create such an air of desolation in her gentle daughter's eyes. She thanked her maternal sense for making her visit when she did. Her daughter obviously needed her and she would do anything in her power not to fail her this time.
She held onto Elena's arms as she perused her up close. Embarrassed, Elena ducked her head and broke from the embrace, smoothing her hair. She was uncomfortably aware that she did not look her best to her immaculate parent.
"Would you like a cup of tea?" She offered, already busying with the kettle as an excuse to distance herself from her mother's probing eyes. If Bettina asked, there was no way she could hide the truth, even if she laid on the platitudes. Her mother was, as all mothers were, astute and attuned to their children's deepest needs. But since she had left home on her own terms without parental approval, she had been careful not to show any weaknesses to them. The last time she revealed her private self, her life changed forever. As much as she was still struggling to manage the raw wounds of unrequited love, she would have to bring out more resources to hide it from her mother.
Bettina, aware of Gloria's presence in the room, smiled and perched delicately on a chair next to the enormous farmhouse table Elena had installed in the kitchen. She would not speak of personal matters while strangers were in the same room. Gloria, dear as she was to Elena and familiar to herself, would not be privy to family matters.
"That would be lovely," she replied. Briefly, she wondered where Andrew was.
Gloria recognised the signs of impending maternal inquisition, picked up her bag and said, "I have some stuff to take care off so I'll catch you later." She nodded at Bettina. "It was nice seeing you again, Mrs Hammond." At the door, she hesitated a heartbeat to throw a supportive glance to her friend just before she left. Elena's tight barely-there smile was the only level of acknowledgement she gave lately. Gloria sighed. I hope your mum can help where I can't.
Bettina patiently waited for her daughter to stop buzzing around the kitchen and sit with her. She waited as the tea brewed adequately, the perfunctory biscuits laid out, even the sink to be wiped, yet Elena avoided looking her way. The silence was telling - more than the activity that didn't need doing. Finally, Bettina asked, "Where's Andrew?"
"He's having his nap."
Bettina smiled ruefully. "I hoped I might see him. Next time, perhaps."
She could demand to see her grandson but that was not her style, nor would Elena react well to that. He would have grown since the last time she held him at the bi-annual family gathering several months ago. Andrew had been presented to the whole family quietly in an understated no fuss no muss introduction that he had slept through, swaddled in a blue knitted blanket and cap. Bettina had seen her daughter competently handle the curiosity from her nieces and nephews, never leaving Andrew for a moment except when she had to attend the formal dinner, and not once asked for help. Bettina herself had had a chance to hold him for an hour when Elena fell asleep one afternoon. She cupped his delicate head and saw the fuzz of dark hair that would lighten in time. And when he blinked, yawning awake, the violet blue of his eyes carried the hope of ages in them. They were exactly like Elena's eyes when she was born; and the connection between generations was sealed in that moment.
Turning to face her mother, Elena heard herself offering, "Why not now?" She didn't know where that came from. Perhaps she was tired of fighting, of maintaining a functioning facade, or perhaps she had no resistance left. It was easier to go with the flow and not expect to be hurt by everyone. Andrew had a right to be loved by his grandparents.
Surprise flickered lightly on Bettina's face, relaxing her facial firmness, and making her appear years younger. "I'd like that. If you feel it won't upset him, I'd like that very much." Elena nodded and patted her hand.
Warmth flushed through Bettina at Elena's gesture. She had always felt that she had to reach out and bridge the emotional distance towards her grown up children, but none more so than Elena who was always just a little more reserved, even as a child, and who had left the family's side under her father's sanction. Elena rarely asked for anything. She got on with her life, doing the right thing by the family, until she had needed them to do the right thing by her. Everyone had, except for Gregory, her father. He had tried. He was still trying. Something's were just easier for a woman, and a mother, to do. Bettina hoped she could call on Elena's loyalty to meet her request. Later. For now, she was happy to have a mother's privilege to spend time with her grandson as well as her daughter, and if she was lucky, she might learn about what was troubling Elena.
"Tell me about him. Does he still snore in his sleep? You know all your brothers did when they were born." Bettina's eyes twinkled.
"So, what did you mom want?" Gloria crunched her way through a bowl of pop corn as she and Elena ignored the television they were supposed to be watching.
"Parents' anniversary ball." Was there nothing decent on? Elena channel surfed expertly. She had become quite au fait with the programmes at night. After Andrew was put to bed, she had the whole damn house to herself and nothing much else to do. Bars and clubs were not her scene, especially not after the last time. They reminded her of Kelli and their brief bright fling, always followed by the ache of the tentative promise, broken.
As whenever she thought of Kelli, her image, her touch, and the longing in her eyes sucked Elena back to their private moments, when it was just the two of them, breathing, feeling; amazed by the unaccountable attraction that held them willingly captive.
Apparently I was only too willing for her, she thought despondently, ignoring the sad confusion that clouded Kelli's face that afternoon. Despite the warning signs and Kelli's reputation, she had given in, walked into the situation with her eyes wide open and became entangled and unravelled simultaneously from the first kiss. What was a one time fuck for someone like Kelli? Elena had sought her out for that very reason – it was to be quick, enjoyable, with no strings attached. She should be glad that that was what she got; only it hadn't worked out that way at all, not for her.
"Sounds important," Gloria said, imagining men in tuxedoes and women in flowing ballgowns laden with jewellery on the formal occasion, a lifestyle away from her own as a nurse. "You going?" She had rarely seen Elena dressed to the nines.
"Oh, yes. I can't not. Father would be livid if I didn't show, and mother would be disappointed." She might be ambivalent towards her father but her mom didn't deserve to be caught in their fractious relationship, nor anyone else. Although, she thought guiltily, it was too late for that.
"Did she have a good visit?"
Elena smiled slightly, the first natural smile Gloria noticed in the weeks since Kelli was last here. "Yes, I think so. She was really low key. We played with Andrew – she really likes him – and we talked about everything, even Claire." The two women lifted their feet onto the coffee table and slouched down deeper into the couch, passing cushions back and forth to fortify their sides as they settled into chat mode.
"You told her everything?" Gloria was incredulous.
"Well, not what happened that day, or about Kelli." Keeping her gaze on her wiggling toes, Elena said, "But she knew something was up. I could see it each time she almost asked." She sighed.
"Yeah, mums always know." Not that you're hiding it well, my friend. "Would it be so bad if you told her?"
"Are you crazy? Tell my mother that I've fallen in love with a woman I had an affair with? We don't even talk about sex in my family. The L word is never uttered in polite conversation … in any conversation with my parents."
"Shoot, you're in love? How'd I miss that?" Gloria teased, hoping to raise a smile from Elena.
Instead, Elena made a quivery face. "It's not all it's cracked up to be." She pinched the bridge of her nose and wiped her eyes. "God, it's been weeks and I still can't stop thinking about her. How's that for pathetic? Lonely housewife falls for smooth charmer, call 1800-Sucker."
Propping her head on her arm, Gloria regarded Elena's self-immolation. "How did she find your house?" she asked.
"I gave her my phone number that night at that party." At Gloria's raised eyebrow, she added, "She rang up the next day and said she wanted to see me."
"So, she came rushing over but creepy Claire was already here and Kelli saw her putting her fangs in you."
"No, that happened just before she arrived." Elena frowned in forced recollection. It had all happened so fast she could only remember the shock on Kelli's face and her rejection. "Claire tried to kiss and make up." Elena swung towards Gloria with a dawning expression on her face. "I think Kelli saw that. Oh my god, do you think …"
Gloria clasped Elena's knee, "Honey, did she say anything about Andrew?"
"No. She just kept looking at him." Elena now had a slightly stricken look on her face. "I thought she was disgusted with him, because Claire said … she never liked him … she said women like Kelli don't want anything to do with children."
"Is that what Kelli said?"
"I don't know. She said something about not wanting to be a fuck buddy."
"Funny that. Not something you'd expect a playgirl to say."
"She also said she didn't fit in my life." Elena threw a wad of tissues over the table at an invisible gremlin. "What was I supposed to do?" She wondered now if Kelli had wanted more than just sex, or at least the same things she had wanted for them. Had she made a mistake by allowing Claire to compound her doubts, stereotyping Kelli, and not giving her a chance? She had acted as judgemental as her father by treating Kelli as if she was not worthy because of her lifestyle when she had felt firsthand the honest attraction running between them. Kelli had been completely unpretentious about her desires, open to Elena's needs, and upfront about what she wanted in return. She could have, but didn't, play mind games. It was the most sincere treatment she had ever received from a lover.
"I would've popped Claire one." Gloria smacked her fist into her open palm for emphasis.
Elena smiled despite her mood. "Next time she lays a finger on me, go for it."
"Next time? It's paybacks all the way." Gloria snorted. "She's had this coming for a long time."
Elena ruffled her friend's curly mop of hair. "You're the best friend a wimpy lesbian girl could have."
"Nah. Your mum slipped me $50 bucks to look out for you, plus extra tips if I keep Claire away," Gloria said smugly.
"Yeah, well, your mum regularly sends me cheques to cover all the food you eat."
They looked at each other and said simultaneously, "Halves!"
Flopping back onto the well padded couch, Gloria smirked at the blonde disarray at the other end, pleased that her friend was now smiling. Tongue in cheek, she said, "I think you should wear that transparent gown to the ball." Only to be hit in the head by a well-aimed cushion.
Continued in part 7.
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