We spent two weeks alone in a studio apartment converted from an old hotel sometime in the late 1980s. We hadn’t spent time like this alone, not really, in a space between friends and something more. With us, there were always others–friends, classmates, boyfriends, roommates, family.
When college ends, time alters abruptly. A year ago we sat in my college-furnished apartment watching reruns of I Love Lucy and eating popcorn. Our routines were normal, well-established, and comfortable as we prepared to return home for our last winter break, to step back into seasonal retail jobs and fantasize about our last semester plans.
Fast forward: a studio apartment with second hand furniture, a night shift that didn’t require a degree, and a new city in a new state. It was Lani’s life, one I stepped into as an outsider after a lush nanny-gig ended. With nowhere to go, I thought, why not? Why not join my best friend in Boston? It seemed a world away from North Dakota, and our shared history would be enough to keep us going.
But I couldn’t quite handle it, not after the excitement of our reunion wore off. We were friends, because she was straight and I had no idea what I was, precisely–except futureless with no way to pay my student loans.
Then we drank a few bottles of cheap merlot and kissed under mistletoe. I immediately began planning our future together in Boston. We’d been friends for years, why couldn’t we be more? I held her hand during breakups and an abortion. She held my hand through rejection and two deaths. Didn’t it make sense that our relationship evolve to something more than friends?
Is this how it is? I wondered, turning the page of a trashy Harlequin novel while Lani slept, exhausted, from her shift. I sat at the table, old and rickety, with a cup of cooling tea and stale toast. Am I ready for whatever this is? I should be reading lesbian literature if we’re going to be together – not Harlequins.
My eyes strayed from the Harlequin and drifted towards our birth control packets shoved against the wall with junk mail and the salt and pepper shaker. Birth control, just in case, my doctor claimed. I took the pills because it was expected; Lani had more reason to take them.
Birth control pills. Harlequin novels. Two friends sharing a bed and a new vibrator to celebrate Christmas. How did it all fit?
What had I just read on that page? I couldn’t remember, and I was tired of silence. I took my cell phone and slipped into my winter boots. Quietly, I left the apartment and climbed down two flights of stairs into the frozen parking lot.
No texts. No voicemails. I felt abandoned by friends and family alike. Even with Lani asleep, knowing I could crawl back into her embrace, I still felt forgotten. Was this normal? I hadn’t thought so, not before. But, then, I hadn’t been away from home before. College didn’t count as away, not when everyone else was away from home as well and trying to establish new friendships.
But, even with Lani, Boston was different.
I dialed Flora, a time zone away, who consumed–who waited for me to come out for years–the details of my rocky adventure with Lani.
“Mallory! I’m so glad you called!” Flora said, her deep voice startling my thoughts.
“I’m glad you picked up,” I smiled. “It’s good to hear your voice.”
“I thought you’d be up in that love nest with Lani. Why are you calling me?” Flora demanded, although I knew she was pleased I’d done so. That was Flora, always demanding but with good intent.
“Lani’s asleep,” I explained, glancing towards the balcony. My heart stopped for a moment at the shadow of a human body in the window, but it was only the coat rack. “I just wanted to talk. Get out for a bit.”
“So, what’s it like? I’m so glad we can talk about women together! Is the sex fantastic?” Flora inquired. “Tell me the sex is fantastic! I haven’t had an affair in 6 months. I’m starting to wonder if queer women exist in Montana.”
“Yes,” I laughed, pushing my trepidation aside. “But it isn’t the sex. It’s…it’s..it’s…oh, I don’t know. Where do we go from here, Flora?”
“I recommend getting back in bed,” Flora offered. “But if that isn’t an option, look for jobs in Boston. You’ll fit right in. You can even nanny again, until you get it figured out.”
As usual, Flora’s sarcasm and reassurance calmed me. Peaceful, I went back upstairs. Lani sat at the table with her cell phone in hand, texting rapidly, sending messages off into the ether. The dark circles around her brown eyes and the wild mass of mousy hair tumbling down her shoulders gave her the appearance of a wild animal. When she smiled at me she seemed almost feral with a predatory look that never seemed to leave her face.
That predatory look wasn’t there before.
“I woke up and you weren’t here,” Lani accused, laying her phone down on the table. “And you left your book in the middle of a chapter.”
“Flora wanted to chat,” I answered, the lie rolling off my tongue easily. I took note, feeling an ounce of shame for not caring about the lie while simultaneously wondering how I couldn’t care about lying to my best friend and current lover. “I didn’t want to wake you. Need you rested for the party tonight.”
“I’m plenty rested,” Lani winked. “You look cold. Shower with me.”
Lani disappeared into the closet sized bathroom, leaving her nightgown in a pile next to the door. The water turned on, and I imagined it beading on her body, hitting the porcelain, and taking her soul down the drain into underground of Boston.
Instead of joining her, I stared at the phone on the table. I felt an overwhelming desire to pick it up and read the texts, to know who she had been texting and what she had been saying while I was conversing with Flora.
How abhorrent, Mallory. You haven’t ever looked at someone’s texts before. Why now? Don’t do it. You’re better than that.
But the phone dinged, and my fingers itched with the compulsion to simply look. I reached out and opened a message from Sam, Lani’s ex-boyfriend. They’d broken up so many times, and I disliked him from the beginning. Each time he hurt her I hated him a little more.
Why did she need to speak with him when I was here? Sharing her bed? Making her dinners? Staying silent during the day while she slept?
If it hadn’t been a text from Sam, maybe I could have just joined her in the shower. Instead, I scrolled through the messages until I saw my name.
Told you so–Mallory has a thing for you.
I needed to fuck. Isn’t like you’re here.
I’ll imagine your cock…
Their messages turned into sexting, complete with dick pics and video. I didn’t know if I should be disgusted with myself or Lani–or, perhaps, I should be disgusted with both of us. As miserable as I was, I loved her. For Lani, I let my guard down. I acknowledged jealousy–I cooked and cleaned and read Harlequins while she slept during the day. I did all of this instead of working on the portfolio I would use for graduate school applications and searching for jobs to pay my student loans.
Were we friends? Lovers? Both? I wasn’t sure. Maybe Lani was just lonely, like me, lost in a different world, and clinging to the past for security.
It didn’t matter. I couldn’t stay.
I still had my boots on. While Lani showered I closed my yet unpacked suit case and called a taxi. If I left now, I could catch a greyhound home to North Dakota, just until I figured everything out.
On a piece of junk mail weighted down by Lani’s birth control pills I wrote:
I always loved you.
Chelsea Grieve spends her time writing and drinking a ridiculous amount of coffee and tea. She reads, tries to belly dance, and explores vegetarian cooking. Haku and Momo, ninja cats extraordinaire, accompany her on literary and writing adventures. You can read Chelsea’s recent work in Only Trollops Shave Above the Knee: The Crazy, Brilliant and Unforgettable Things We’ve Learned from Our Mothers.