'Wait a minute, baby
I want to go home.
When I was a child, I lifted my arms to the sky and let the breeze wash me spotless. But I can't come unsoiled in this dirty town; I'm too stained. There's too much nicotine, grease, sweat and semen to wash away. And I cannot come clean.
I escape to my best friend, Stephanie, when I can, because she lives in a small town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where the trees are thick and the grass is so green and wild and fragrant that I wish I could bottle the scent of it. I want to inhale that place and hold the sweet air in my lungs long enough to render me weightless, airborne, sky high. And when I go there, I never want to leave.
But I do. I return to my city of vultures. I know joy must be here, or else this town wouldn't be home to anyone, but I can't find it. It's dusk right now in D.C. and it's my favorite time of day, when the world goes soft and the sky lambent. Dreams and love and happiness are in the air, in the smell of the Greek restaurant a block away, in the sound of laughter and shouting, in the subtle flirtations of the couple sitting on the worn stone steps of my building. I stand on the roof and look and listen. I know joy must be here, it must soundtrack the evening with car horns and street music, but when I lift my arms to the wind like I did when I was six, the breeze doesn't blow through me and it doesn't cleanse me and it doesn't carry my soul to heaven and back.
And this place doesn't feel like home.
I wish an extra wish this evening, as the layers of the sky grow darker above me. It's my secret wish, one that I just discovered recently, one that I try not to think about, one that I keep buried. I wish that Stephanie would go ahead and marry Raney and get it over with, and that we'd all go to Louisiana and live in her little cottage. It's always in a state of disrepair, but it sits on a piece of land so wide that it takes part of a day to walk it. There's no sound of car horns or street music, just cicadas and every kind of songbird you can imagine.
My father once told me that a wish is a bird in your hand, and it can die or it can fly, whichever you choose. You can neglect it and watch it starve to death or you can smother it or even crush it. Or you can nurture it and set it free. I don't want this wish to die.
I want it so badly that I see it when I close my eyes. The only thing similar to my dream home and this place is that it's dusk there, too. Raney's working on the piece-of-junk lawn mower, maybe. Stephanie's covering her Harley for the evening and she's probably singing or making some other soulful noise, because she's never quiet for long. And I'm preparing dinner. I watch them from the window for a while, until the broth of the pollo tizatlan is simmering, and then I move out of the heat of the kitchen and into the coolness of the mild November. I walk to the car that has just pulled into the long, dirt driveway, and wait in the dust for the ignition to turn off. Then my hands are opening the door, taking the baby and kissing his sweet, round head, and Stephanie is coming and pulling him from me. She knows just how to hold him because she had babies once. So I watch her carry William to Raney, and they make a big fuss over the little miracle. And I turn and look at the miracle's mother, and pull her into my arms and make her stay.
I make her stay and see that life isn't a cold concrete city of soulless, faceless vulture people. Life isn't gray buildings, gray sidewalks, gray parking garages, gray cars, gray clothes or gray air. Life isn't false truths or empty searches or conspiracies or power. Life isn't this emotional wasteland.
I make her stay and see what life is. I make her see that life is a growing child and that life is a family of friends standing on a dirt driveway at twilight in Louisiana or Mexico or wherever there's love, and I tell her that this is why we live. And I tell her how I once dreamt of this life from my rooftop in D.C.
And when I share this secret with her, she shares her secret with me.
I feel heavy and I know that it's my need that weighs so much. I don't want to need her. But I do, and I wonder why I want to take her away from here. I wonder why I want to hold her in my arms on a dirt driveway in Louisiana. I wonder why I want to promise her that when we tire of that place, we can move on. I can take her somewhere where the history is poured into clay, to a place where the land is long desert until it's broken by water or volcano or lush grass. It's a place where I can tell her a different story every night because the myth and lore around us are so rich that even the trees have tales. It's a place where I can sing Spanish lullabies to her child while she rocks him to sleep. It's the place where she's happy and unafraid, the place where she will let me lick her wounds and feed her love and nourish her soul back to health.
I lock my wish away like I always do, but I won't continue keeping these thoughts to myself. I will not. I cannot. I cannot be Emily Dickinson and wrap them up in tidy little packages and pile them in my seclusion and cage my love like it's a secret bird, because I cannot cage my love like it's a secret.
Because I cannot cage my love.
McCall sleeps, thick hair hanging over her face, one arm draped across the desk, the other dangling. A mini-recorder is positioned beside her head. Her partner in crime is intensely taking notes. Scam artists. They do this once or twice a week, swapping turns. 4.0, both of them. They're my best students.
My favorites, too. I wipe down one side of the board and begin filling it with chalk marks again, talking fast. It's a rehash of methodology, and my students should be bored to tears. They should be bored to sleep, like McCall, but most of them are jotting everything down. I have to sigh. If they don't have it by now, they never will.
The phone rings four times before I can find the asinine thing. It's so small I haven't figured out where the hell the mouthpiece is. "Dana Scully." Whatever happened to the cell phones of the '90s? What was wrong with them? Is eight ounces too much to carry?
"Dana, hi, it's Monica."
"Agent Reyes." I waste an evil eye on McCall.
"I hope I didn't interrupt anything."
"No, no." If I can't get McCall's attention, I'll get Sayer's. I stare at her, and she finally looks up. I make a slicing motion across my throat and point to her buddy. Sayer doesn't spook easily, but she glances at McCall nervously.
"You're not in the middle of class?"
I jerk Sayer to attention with some loud and rapid snapping of my fingers. One of her books clatters to the floor.
McCall still sleeps, damn it.
"I don't answer my cell phone when I'm in class," I lie. I enjoy being unavailable.
"Oh. Are calls not allowed?"
"I don't allow them." The students are most frightened of me when I'm calm, so I walk slowly and calmly up the aisle and stop at the ninth row. Sayer's trying to nudge her girlfriend awake, to no avail. "Can you hold for a moment?"
I press the hold button and lean close to McCall. "HEY!"
She sits up, knocking her recorder over, almost falling out of the chair. I point to the door. "You, too," I say to Sayer.
They're scrambling, gathering things, fumbling. "It's okay. I've got it," Sayer whispers to McCall. She grabs the recorder up off the floor and helps her taller friend - still clumsy with sleep -negotiate the steps. McCall's backpack hangs open on her shoulder. Sayer follows behind, zipping it as they walk.
I flip Reyes on and walk back to my desk. "Sorry."
"No problem. I know you're busy." Her words are rushed. "I was calling to see if you would be available - if you would be interested in coming to a party. At my place, a celebration type thing - for my loft. Saturday night."
"Loft-warming?" I know there's a lilt in my voice, and I don't disguise it; Monica's nervous enough.
"Yes. Saturday. There'll be a lot of people there. You won't know most of them, but you'll like them."
I like the sound of this already. "Who will I know? Specifically?" It looks like all of my students have finished copying what's on the board. I glance at my watch and dismiss them with a wave of my hand. They're attentive when they want to be and scramble out.
"Oh." Monica falters. "Well, you might not know anyone, actually."
"Are you starting class?"
"What?" Oh, the noise. "No."
"You'll enjoy yourself, I'm sure of it. You'll like my friends." Her tone is cajoling.
She doesn't need to talk me into it, but I'm not going to let her know that. "What time?"
"It starts at nine. But any time you want to come is fine. Some of my friends who have kids will get there right at nine and stay a couple of hours; some will show up at 11 and stay until 2 or 3. So, if you want to meet people like you, come early. If you want to meet people like me, come late."
"People like you?" I arch my eyebrow. The right one, the one that arches highest.
"And because I have a child, I automatically belong to the dull and boring set who has to be in bed by midnight. Is that it?" I'm not giving her time to answer. "If I want to meet other boring parents, I need to come early? But if I want to meet people like you, who I assume are a more vivacious and entertaining lot -"
"No." Monica chuckles.
I sniff. "What, then? Hippies? Is it a bunch of whale-song-singing hippies I'm going to meet? Is that the kind of evening I'm in for?"
"Ah!" She laughs some words I can't understand. "No, no."
"Oh. Folk-tale-telling FBI agents?"
Monica's laughter fills the receiver for a moment, flooding me with warmth, then she sighs. "Afraid not. I'm the only whale-song-singing, folk-tale- telling FBI hippy I know."
"Oh well." I can sigh, too, and I can do it louder, and I do. "I guess you're the only person like you who'll be there."
She snickers. "I'm more than a hippy agent, Dana."
"Mm hmm. Well, maybe one day you'll prove it to me." I'm looking at my nails, thinking about an outfit, nail polish, shoes.
"I'll have to get you away from work to do that."
Monica's voice is so sultry that she snaps me to attention as easily as I snapped my student. There's a pulse beating deep down in me, in a place that's normally very quiet.
"Is it even possible? To get you away from work?" Monica teases.
She obviously doesn't know who she's playing with. Or what. "I'm seduced away from it occasionally."
Monica doesn't miss a beat. "Yeah? How occasionally? Once a week? Saturday nights, maybe?"
Damn. I can't think of a clever response.
"'Cause all I've ever seen of you is work. All work and no play makes Dana a lonely girl."
"You saw me Saturday."
"Not nearly enough."
My mouth goes dry. Monica seems to be much better at this flirting game than I am. "At least it was memorable. You tell me a fascinating story then have a seizure. Was that to keep me interested?"
She's laughing. "Seizure? I was just light-headed."
"No. Something was wrong. It was more than just your concern over me and whether or not I was leaving."
"I told you, it was real - I'd lost you once already. It was a powerful feeling of loss."
Monica had attempted to explain it to me at the time, but I didn't hear half of what she'd said. I had been concentrating on her hand, holding mine, and wondering if I could/should/would kiss her. I decided that I could but shouldn't, so I didn't. "Did you think I was going to rush off to the mountains if the men in the village didn't love me?"
"Something like that."
"Wouldn't happen." I'm nonchalant and I pick a piece of lint off my suit to prove it to myself. "Anyway, I think you're more like Irina than I am." I'm fascinated by that folk tale she told me last week. I want to know what it means to her.
"Running? Outcast?" If a smirk was a sound, it would be the sound she makes. "Not me."
"I don't know, Monica." My heart's in my throat. "I can see you fleeing to the Caucasus, waiting for love to find you."
"Yeah? Well, I might just surprise you. It might be that I'm the princess witch herself, casting a spell."
Casting a spell, indeed. "So." My voice cracks like a teenage boy's. "What would a lowly peasant wear to a party at the castle?"
"If the peasant was Irina, I think she could wear anything. She was the most beautiful woman in all the village, you know."
What's she telling me? Am I her Irina? I remember that she'd referred to me as beautiful and fierce last Saturday. I like that description - the fierce part, anyway. "And what about the princess? Some lovely gown?"
"Oh, no, no. I think the princess was probably a hippy. So she'd probably wear hippy clothes."
I laugh. "A hippy princess witch? I suppose she was fond of whale song?"
"I think there was probably more to her than that," she says primly.
"You'll have to prove it to me one day."
"I'll have to get you away from work to do that."
"I imagine you could seduce me away from it." My heart's beating irregularly and I'm afraid I'm making a fool of myself. "Look, my battery's about to die." Another lie. "I'll see you Saturday. Thanks, Monica." I click the phone off before I become a bigger fool.
Sayer's returned, and is sitting alone in the auditorium, in the front row, finishing her note taking.
My student gives me a sly look. "She pretty?"
"Sweet." She grins.
Very sweet. Much too sweet, the woman and the situation. It'll never happen, but I have a feeling Monica's going to play me for all I'm worth before she breaks my heart. She won't mean to, of course, but women like her are loved by too many not to break a few.
The loft is spotless. I've cleaned it from top to bottom, even the windows, which are so large and so high on the walls that I had to purchase a ladder to reach the tops of them. I would've needed a ladder anyway to change the light bulbs. Such open space makes me happy.
Stephanie's due to arrive any minute, and Raney will probably be here shortly thereafter. They're my two closest buddies, and they'll make tonight more bearable. I expect to be given the cold shoulder by almost everyone, so I've made a small display of some art they should recognize. It should appease them; it was done by the salutatorian of our graduating class at Brown. He died a few months ago, and nothing has been the same since. Everyone loved Marty. His artwork is mostly sculptures, with a couple of mosaics thrown in. I'm leaving the drawings packed away, though, and the wolf stays in the guest bedroom, because these things are too personal to have on exhibit.
I've spent the last few days trying not to think about Dana and whether or not she'll come. She said she would, but she's so wrapped up in herself and her son that I'm not sure she'll even remember the invitation. I hope she does. She's the main reason for the party. I'm so at odds with my friends right now that I probably wouldn't have it otherwise. But I have to get her alone. I have to tell her what she means to me, and I need to know if I mean anything to her.
I know she cares about me as a friend, even though she's so gruff and unemotional that it's sometimes hard to know where she's coming from. I need to know if I'm more. I need to know if she lies awake thinking about me the way that I think about her. I need to know where I stand with her, and I need to know tonight, because I don't like guessing games. And I can't keep these feelings bottled up inside any longer.
Stephanie says that what I wear tonight is the key to everything. "Give her sexy, honey," she said from the road yesterday. Not only have we already discussed our outfits, but Steph's familiar with almost everything that hangs in my closet. We're that close, even though she lives a thousand miles away.
The outfit I'd planned to wear does nothing for her, even though she hasn't seen it. It's pretty - a soft cashmere dress, beige, and even softer brown leather boots that come to my knees. "Something sexier," Stephanie insisted. I'm not sure I dare to wear what she has in mind. The blouse is a halter top that she pushed me to buy last year when we were in New Orleans, and the skirt is excessively short. I plan to wear the cashmere. This party isn't about seduction, after all, it's about getting answers to some important questions and setting some secrets free.
I'm glad the parking garage is well lit. Monica's loft is located in a decidedly uneven section of town. Her building's nice; it's an old school with huge banks of windows, and the grounds are green and they cover a city block. But the adjacent blocks aren't as lush, and they're scattered with prostitutes and drug dealers. I don't like her living on the fringe like this.
I take a freight elevator from the garage to the living quarters, and I have to smile. It's decidedly different, this building; the developers have done a good job in restoring it. The incredibly wide hallways still house lockers, the doors are heavy wood and the walls are brick. The first floor is retail space and Monica's floor is directly above a small day spa.
Six is on the end, beside an alcove with a window. I peer out it at the night. I don't like her being in a mixed-use building, but that's none of my business. I don't like her being the end apartment on the first residential floor adjacent to an 8' x 12' window, either. I especially don't like that she's bought this place instead of leasing it. If this is where she's putting down roots, I'll be worrying about her for a long time.
I press the buzzer, suddenly self-conscious about the house-warming gift I've brought her. It's too personal to be unwrapped in a crowd; she'll need to open it later.
I ring the buzzer again, just as she's opening the door, and my breath catches. I've always thought her pretty, but now I know better. She's gorgeous. I can't choose which feature to stare at, her eyes, her smile, her breasts, or her legs. "Dana," she says breathlessly, and it's her smile my eyes rest on.
"I'm glad to see you. Come in." She closes the door behind me. "Can I get your coat?"
"Yes, thanks." I maneuver her heavy present and reach up to remove my jacket myself, but Monica's already behind me. She brushes against my collarbones as she reaches around and grasps it in an area so close to my breasts that my nipples react to her heat. She opens my coat and then moves her hands back up to a place near the collar, pulls the leather, slides it down. I feel her fingertips through my thin blouse as they trail down my arms. I'm on fire.
"Love that blouse," she murmurs, her mouth seeming to be intimately close, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. "Turn around, let me see." I turn, feeling awkward, and her eyes are all over my body, but mostly on my breasts. Not that I'm wearing anything revealing - but the blouse is tight, and her admiration is open. The shirt is different for me, and I'm nervous. It's vivid and exotic - a Gaultier tulle top in black, lime green and silver - and I paid too much for it. I bought it just for tonight. "Nice," she says, and the price of the blouse is worth it. Her eyes sweep up to my face and she smiles mysteriously, as if we share a secret.
She's cast a spell on me.
This encounter - from the moment she opened the door until now - is one of the most erotic moments I've ever experienced, and far too brief. She moves to a nearby closet, and I let myself gawk. If she thinks I look nice, there must be a finer word for her. She's all mini-skirt, tall boots and bare legs, but it's her blouse that's the scene-stealer. It's sleeveless, black and soft, like crushed velvet. There's a keyhole of exposed flesh from her collarbone to her sternum. It looks quite charming on her - feminine but strong, accentuating her broad shoulders - but it's not what it seems. For all its sweet, earthy innocence, it's backless.
Two thoughts hit me at once. One, it's November and much too cold for her outfit. Two, this party isn't just a party if she wore it for me. She turns back to me, and I push those thoughts away. The finer word I want isn't on my tongue, so I thrust the present at her. "Here. For your house warming. Loft-warming, I should say."
Her smile lights up her whole face. "Thank you, that's so sweet."
I grimace. Sweet's not what I intended. "You might want to open it later."
Her eyes penetrate mine. There's something sexy about them that I've never noticed before. "Okay," she says softly. "Let me put it in a safe place."
I follow her, feeling decidedly conspicuous in this blouse. My trousers ride low and the blouse rides high, so my stomach feels uncomfortably naked. I try to relax. I wanted to be daring and different, someone more exciting than I am, and that's why my clothes are tight. Instead, I'm the same me stuck in a blouse so wild that everyone turns to stare in our direction.
There are many people here, but the loft is enormous, and it doesn't feel crowded. It seems even bigger than it did last week, when she didn't have all of her furniture yet. "Can I get you something to drink?" she asks over her shoulder.
I'm staring at her shoulders, at her back, at her shoulder blades, at the long line of her spine. She wore this blouse because she wanted someone to touch her. I wonder if she knows that someone's going to be me.
We walk into the kitchen area, and she places the gift on the counter. She looks at it for a moment, rubbing her thumb over the paper as if she's contemplating opening it. I stare at her back and think about how nice it would be to wrap my arms around her. I'd kiss her between her shoulder blades and slide my hands up to her breasts. She turns and smiles at me, and I'm almost ashamed of my lustful thoughts. Almost. "What's your poison?"
"What are my options?"
Her look is entirely innocent. "I'm sure I have anything you'd want."
I'm sure she does, too. "Why don't you pick my poison, in that case?"
She chuckles and scratches her brow. "Okay." I can't take my eyes from her. She grows pensive, staring right back at me. "I'd peg you for vodka or gin. Or white wine, maybe. A clear drink."
I'm surprised by her accuracy. "A gin and tonic would be great." Why not have a summer drink to celebrate her summer outfit? As she prepares it, I watch her and wonder if she's sleeping with anybody. I wonder if she sleeps with men. "And you?" I ask, when she hands me the drink. "What's your poison, Monica?" I take a sip, locking eyes with her. "Something harder, I imagine?"
There's definite heat in the room. "What could be harder than a gin and tonic?" she purrs. "Looks like water, tastes like gasoline."
"Yeah, well," I swallow. "Some things aren't what they seem."
She reaches into the cabinet. "And those," she says, pulling out a bottle of Jack Daniels, "Are the most interesting things of all." She pours herself a shot, downs it, and tilts the glass toward me.
I shake my head. "I'll stick with unleaded."
"Okay." She chuckles and grabs herself a beer from the fridge. "Let me introduce you around."
I follow her back to her amazing living space. I'm already sure I'll spend a lot of the evening learning about her from her friends, and I'm surprised by my enthusiasm. I *want* to spend the evening discussing her. I want to spend it looking at her pottery and books and photos, and everything else. I want to learn everything about her tonight.
"Monica!" someone yells. We look, and there's a guy at the other end of the loft. He's waving at her like a drunken idiot, asking about a cheron, whatever that is. She yells right back at him that it's in the guest room, but he doesn't seem to find it. She excuses herself from me to help him, and I'm alone suddenly, in the midst of sixty people who may or may not be friendly, who may or may not be gay, and who may or may not think I'm someone more exciting than I am because of my distinct blouse.
It takes me five seconds to realize that it's a mixed crowd, and not much longer than that for the first guy to hit on me. He's not bad looking, but there's an air of desperation that clings to him like cloying aftershave. I'm quickly becoming trapped in a conversation I don't want to have, and I can't be rude to him if he's a friend of Monica's.
I don't have to endure it long. Another man comes to my rescue. I hope these guys notice that I'm rolling my eyes at both of them. This man is easy, though. He's attractive, but he'd be plain if it weren't for his long, thick lashes and incredible gray eyes. He's dressed casually in blue jeans and loafers.
He steps right in front of the oily guy - Gary Somebody - and sticks his hand out. "Raney Pritchard," he says in a southern accent. His grip is firm and dry, compared to Gary's. "I'll be your tour guide this evening." His eyes crinkle.
He nods, as if he knew this already. "Monica asked me to find you," he says.
I'm embarrassed that he found me so quickly; I'm sticking out like a sore thumb. I can just hear Monica tell him 'Find Dana Scully, she's the one with the loud blouse.' He seems to sense my discomfort. "There's not many people here I don't know." He nods curtly to Gary while taking my elbow and leading me away. "Excuse us, Walker."
I learn that Raney Pritchard is the pastor of a small congregation outside Atlanta, and that Monica really didn't fetch for me, but meant to rescue me from Gary Walker. "She's tied up with the Cheron right now," he says, glancing over my head.
"What's the cheron?"
"It's a sculpture of a wolf. Our friend, Marty Cheron, did it. He died a few months ago. The last time most of us were together was at his funeral."
I nod my sympathy.
"Freak motorcycle accident," he offers, and stops in front of the painting of the peasant and the princess witch, and begins telling me all about the artist, who happens to be here tonight, and for whom he obviously has great affection. "Speak of the devil." He looks across the room and I follow his gaze.
A woman's kissing Monica.
"How's my baby?"
Stephanie touches my arm and her breasts press against me as she leans up on tiptoe for a kiss. Fifteen years ago, that move of hers had me weak-kneed and tongue-tied. Now I just roll my eyes. "I'm good."
Her lips linger on mine for a moment, not because there's any passion between us, but because she knows how it looks to everyone who's watching. And everyone's always watching her; she makes sure of that. She was born an actress and doesn't need a stage to show off her talents.
She's the other redhead in my life (until she changes colors again), and so different from Dana that they aren't comparable. Steph's the divorced mother of two grown boys, a drama coach and the proud owner of a Harley Davidson. Her hair is long and curly and her figure is voluptuous. She has the artist's flair and everything she wears is dramatic and gaudy; her clothes are always a disaster. And she brought plenty of gaudy with her this afternoon when she made the drive to my place. I hauled three suitcases of gaudy out of the trunk of her ancient car. Gaudy is heavy.
Tonight she's sporting a leather skirt, black boots - nothing like the ones I'm wearing because hers have a stiletto heel - and a small, red blouse. She loves cleavage - she loves tempting people that way - so the shirt's cut low at her breasts. She's looking cheap, raunchy and brazenly sexy. No taste, this woman. I wouldn't have her any other way.
"Is she here yet?"
I nod. "She's -"
"No, don't tell me. Let me find her."
"I'm getting another beer. What do you want?"
I leave her and glance around at the other guests. Friends, all of them, mostly from Brown, and most of them know each other. They seem to be having a good time; some are gathering in cliques by the fireplace (which doesn't hold a fire tonight, but candles), some are dancing, and everyone is drinking. I learned a long time ago that the only requirement for having a good party is plenty of alcohol. The rest takes care of itself.
I have plenty of alcohol tonight. There's nothing appealing about getting drunk, but it's going to take more than a couple of beers for me to relax enough to talk to Dana. I don't know how to begin telling her how I feel. I can't even get up the courage to make small talk with her. I can't even look at her.
I catch a whiff of Stephanie before I ever reach her with her drink. She smells like the cologne that I buy her every year. It's the only classy thing about her, and she wears too much of it. And because she's Stephanie, it's the only thing she wears too much of tonight. Except for makeup, maybe. And jewelry.
She looks smug. "Found her." She knows how I feel about Dana. She knows without asking.
"Hard to miss." Stephanie nods toward the painting she did forever ago and the woman standing beneath it, beside Raney Pritchard. "Red. Devastating."
I blush. She's right, and what a succinct way to put it.
"So introduce me already."
I'm glad for the opportunity. No small talk required; Stephanie will take care of that. She walks straight to her without waiting on me, and without waiting for the introduction she requested, sticks out her hand. "Stephanie Laos."
Dana shakes it with pursed lips and a small smile. "Dana Scully."
"I know who you are. I've heard all about you." Stephanie winks at her.
Oh, God. Don't. Don't embarrass me.
"Really?" Dana cocks her head.
"Yeah." Stephanie's eyes run rampant over Dana, from her astonishingly well-fitting bell-bottoms to the blouse that's so wild (vivid and bold, just like the woman herself) and so snug that there's no doubt about what kind of body it contains. Stephanie opens her mouth to say something else and then uncharacteristically closes it. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"It's a pleasure meeting the person behind the painting." Dana nods toward the wall behind her. It's a big piece of art - 60" x 72" - and dwarfs her, but it looks tiny in the loft. This is the first place I've ever lived in which it has looked small.
"Monica told me the story; you've captured it well."
Stephanie doesn't accept compliments easily. Dana's admiration pleases her, but she won't say so. "Whatever. I'll paint pictures and pretend to be people I'm not and you and Monica can go save the world."
Dana looks at me. "Unfortunately, I don't have the pleasure of saving the world or doing even less remarkable things with Monica."
I swallow hard. Stephanie not too subtly nudges me. Dana sips her drink.
Raney shifts from one foot to the other, unaware of the dynamic between the women he's standing with. "I don't know why y'all want to go and be in that kind of business. You can do a lot more good for our country by teaching."
He's making a reference to Stephanie, but she just snorts. "Yeah, right, Raney."
"Dana is a teacher," I say. Her eyes are on mine and I give her a smile. "She teaches people how to save the world."
This earns me an embarrassed grin. Dana's cheeks are flushed and she's so beautiful that she takes my breath away, but Stephanie interrupts this wonderfully awkward moment by grabbing my hand. "Finish your drink and let's dance."
"Now?" I ask, even though it's pointless to argue. There's no denying her - she'll only make a scene and whine and bitch and moan if I don't dance with her - so I give my drink to Raney, who already has his hand out. He caters to us like this; he always has.
Stephanie swallows her tequila and passes the glass to the person who looks most like a servant at the moment, Raney, of course. He's juggling three glasses. Dana looks at Stephanie as if she's seeing a circus attraction, and at me as if I'm a pushover. She even rolls her eyes. Dammit. "Come on, babe," Stephanie says, and jerks me away.
I don't want Dana to see me dancing with Stephanie, but what choice do I have? I'm uncomfortably aware that no one else is dancing to this song. It's Chicago. It's one of their old ones and it's not danceable. "Where's the dance music?"
"It's coming." CDs were her only responsibility tonight, and I'm sure she's picked plenty of good stuff, but for now we have to suffer through some classic rock. That the song's not easy to dance to suddenly becomes my least concern, though, as her left hand grips my bicep and her right hand clasps mine. This is our normal stance when we dance together, and there's nothing sexual or intimate about it, but Dana's staring at us and I feel ill at ease. "I love this song," Stephanie says, and smiles up at me.
"Mmm," she says, and gives no answer.
Our moves are straight from the New York Hustle, which means that one of my hands stays in hers most of the time, while the other is on her shoulder blade. She's gained a few pounds since I last saw her. Stephanie's weight fluctuates with her moods, up and down, and she has to work to stay fit. I try not to look at Dana.
Stephanie notices. "I'm thinking that this chick is trying not to look at you, either. She's got that self-conscious expression on her face like she thinks somebody's watching her."
"She always has that expression on her face."
"Maybe she knows you're always watching."
Good point. I bring the subject back around to Stephanie. She's on caffeine again, which is not a good thing for someone who's predisposed to hyperactivity. She's on caffeine and she's eating a lot. She's not exercising. She's drinking. "How's work?" I ask, hoping that this is the problem and not something worse.
"Fine," she says.
"Seeing anybody I need to know about?"
"Nope." But she presses closer to me, hiding her face.
"Stephanie," I warn. "Tell me."
Instead, she sings with the song. "'Life is everything it's meant to be.'"
I draw back and look at her. She grips my hands and smiles radiantly.
This causes me great concern. Stephanie's the happiest when she's in dire straits. "Who is it?" She just smiles, trying to be mysterious, and I'm not even sure she's seeing someone. I'm not sure what she's up to at all.
The music's pumping up, reaching a crescendo, and Stephanie pushes away from me, still clasping my hands. "'Searching for an answer,'" she sings, twirling, beaming, letting go.
We're great on the dance floor together; we've had enough experience with each other to know how we fit together. She swirls and comes to me with practiced grace, and I catch her hand and spin her more. I feel eyes on us, more eyes than just Dana's, and I'm not surprised. I know how we look together.
"Damn, we're sexy," she says, reading my mind for probably the hundredth time since I've known her. "Think Dana's noticed yet?"
"Is that what you're up to?" She's not fooling me a bit. There's more to what's going on with her tonight than simply sparking a little danger.
"I just want to push things along a bit," she says. "I'd like to see you hook up with somebody that cares about you for a change. I'd like it to happen tonight, so I can watch." She grins wickedly. "And I'd *really* like it to be a chick."
"Stephanie," I hiss, because she's unduly loud. Even her whispers are loud, like stage whispers.
"I don't even know if she - " I stop myself. "I don't think she's interested in me. Like that."
"Damn girl, wake up. Haven't we had this conversation before? You can't stop staring at her. She can't stop staring at you. And I can't stop staring at both of you staring at each other." She turns to look at Dana, who is, indeed staring at us. "It's like a dyke soap opera. All we need is the bi one - that would be me - coming on to the butch one - that would be Dana, who only has eyes for the femme one - that would be you, who's totally clueless at what's going on." She checks Scully out. "I gotta say, she's got that butch thing down pat for somebody who knows how to wear makeup." The music changes, and Stephanie twists in my arms. "Turn us around."
Raney's strutting up to us, rolling his arms over each other and singing off-key. "'Looking back on when I.'" He claps. "'Was a little nappy-headed boy.'"
Stephanie ignores the Stevie Wonder wannabe. "Okay, now don't look at her while I�m talking to you, but dig this, babe: Dana's staring at you, right? She's marking her territory. See, all the other dykes in the room noticed you immediately, as soon as they walked in the door."
I wonder how much she's had to drink. She was in the kitchen before the party started, while I was dressing, clinking bottles. She's not drunk yet, but she will be before the night's over. What she's saying is made even weirder by Raney, who's doing his stiff little dance around us, and still singing: "'Even though we sometimes - Would not get a thing.'" He concentrates on a little spin. "'We were happy with the - Joy the day would bring!'" He claps.
Stephanie prattles on. "And Dana's letting them know that you're off limits. She watches you and strikes her butch pose, and makes sure all the other dykes know that you're hers."
"You're crazy." That's the craziest thing I've ever heard. I kind of want to believe her, though. I push her away, until our arms are completely outstretched, our fingertips touching. She raises her left hand in the air, snaps her fingers, and comes whirling to me when I draw her back in.
"You think so?" Stephanie's arms are folded against my chest because I've pulled her that close. "Well, she's moved since I turned us around, babe. She doesn't want you to see her looking. She's standing right behind you. She's watching to see what I do with you." Stephanie looks at me conspiratorially. "I'm thinking I should make a pass at you. We've got to light a fire under that chick. She wants you, anybody can see that. What the hell's taking her so long?" Stephanie looks at me slyly again and motions for me to follow her. We step aside. "Dare you to ask her to dance."
"Double dare you."
Raney does a little chicken dance beside me. "Double dare you, Monica!"
He doesn't even know what Stephanie wants me to do. He's back in his song, singing with Stevie Wonder. I've said it before and I say it again: "What a strange little preacher man." Cute as a button, though. Stephanie pinches me for attention. "Stephanie, I can't." She pushes at me. "No!"
Raney glances at us and heads off to the kitchen. He probably thinks we're going to argue.
She stands back and looks at me for a moment. I can see the gears turning. "Okay, be that way. Be lonesome."
"Don't get pouty on me. Please? Just let me take my time, okay? I'm nervous."
"Oh, baby." She's in my arms again. "Don't be afraid."
"I don't want to lose her." I swallow. "What if I tell her that I like her and she rejects me? What if I lose her friendship?"
She snorts. "Yeah, go tell her you like her, maybe you can hold hands during recess and - oh, baby, I'm sorry. I'm just teasing. Tell her you like her; tell her everything. She's not going to run away."
Her interest turns momentarily to Raney, who's returned with beers for all of us. He's too cute for Stephanie to resist. "I promise she won't," she says to me, then turns her attention to the man she loves but will never marry. "What do you think?" she asks him.
He hands us the beers. "About what?"
"Stephanie!" She's so freakin' loud.
"Dana?" Raney asks.
"See? Even he knows. And you know how vanilla Raney Baby is." Stephanie looks behind me, toward Dana, I presume. "Dig that butch walk. Yummy," she says, smiling slyly. "I sure wouldn't mind having me some government protection tonight." She winks.
Raney shakes his head. "Monica's still the prettiest FBI agent I've ever seen." He looks at Dana and shakes his head again. "Hands down."
"Well, of course she is," Stephanie says. "Nobody's as pretty as our baby. But goddamn. Look at that chick."
I follow her gaze and Raney's to Dana, and she's moved to another spot, farther from us. At this precise moment, she looks our way. She catches my eyes, and I want her over here with us. I want to be over there with her.
Raney shrugs. "I don't see it. She's all right, but she's not Monica. Or you, either."
Stephanie shakes her head in disgust. "I'll never get men."
"Oh, honey," Raney drawls. "I think you've gotten your share of 'em."
That little nugget pulls my attention back to him; he cracks me up. Raney sneaks them in now and then.
Stephanie rolls her eyes. "You know what I mean. Look at that face. How many people do you ever see with a face that dramatic? Damn. I'd get roles if I had a face like that."
"You get plenty of roles," Raney protests. "Too many roles."
I wonder if he's just encouraging her or if he really doesn't know what a hard time she's had finding acting work in the past couple of years.
"Yeah, whatever. She has the perfect face for an actor," Stephanie says. "She's gorgeous."
Raney seems noncommittal in his agreement. "Yeah, I guess. But she's kind of mean-looking or something."
I chuckle. "She's not mean." What she is, however, is 63 inches of intensity. "Naw, that ain't the word." He thinks. "Severe." He nods. "Like she'd be into discipline."
I spew beer, choking, and Stephanie guffaws. She slaps my back, because I'm coughing like crazy, and she thinks pounding me will help. We're bent over, laughing our asses off.
"What? Why's that so funny?" Raney asks, and he really wonders.
It's funny because Raney's such an old-fashioned guy. He's 34 going on 90.
"A little-" Stephanie breaks off, laughing hysterically. "A little S&M, Raney?"
He blushes. "Well, yeah. She looks like she'd be into that a little too much for my taste."
Anything out of the ordinary is too much for Raney's taste.
"If she is, she's hooking up with the right chick," Stephanie says, winking.
It's Raney's turn to choke on beer. "What?"
"Isn't she, baby?"
I'm laughing too hard to answer.
"What?" Raney gazes at me incredulously. I don't think he could look more shocked. This makes me laugh all the harder.
"S&M," Stephanie says. "Dana's got it wrong if she thinks she's going to tie this one up, though. Monica's a regular dominatrix."
Stephanie's not just an actor; she's a director, so she knows about timing. She pulls me by the hand and we make our way back to the dance arena. It's time for some disco.
I wish Dana would join us. No such luck. We're dancing to Donna Summer, and when this song ends and ABBA begins, Raney comes over for a little disco action. Apparently, he's recovered from his embarrassment. "Hey, you remember how to do the Hustle?" he shouts at me over the music. His brown, wavy hair is sprinkled with gray, but it doesn't make him look any older. He looks like a baby, even though he's my age.
Stephanie comes up behind him, her hands on his waist, beer bottle almost empty. "Of course she remembers, darling. I taught her."
Raney's familiar enough with Stephanie to overlook her sexual innuendos. "Remind me," he says. "I can't remember." When Raney says 'can't,' his 'a' is hard, and it sounds like "faint" with a 'c.'
"You can't?" Stephanie mocks. What she doesn't realize is that her accent is almost as thick as Raney's, and that when she mocks him, no one can really tell she's doing it but me. It's my own little joke.
"Come on, baby." Stephanie grabs my hand. "Let's remind him."
Raney's referring to the California Hustle, the line dance, and it takes us a few minutes to get it sorted out. Stephanie keeps putting too many moves in it, and I keep looking around for Dana. But I've finished my beer, and hers is long gone, and ABBA's gone off and Alicia Bridges has come and gone, too. We've taught Raney the steps, and we're headed away from the dance area toward the kitchen for more refreshment, but a sudden sound stops us.
It's KC and the Sunshine Band. Stephanie and I look at each other, and then we're in the middle of the crowd again, dancing our hearts out, throwing some Latin Hustle into our routine. Our hands are pressed together, arms stretched out, and we look like we're about to tango. We always get silly doing this, and Stephanie embellishes with kickbacks and air kisses. When the music ends, I'm disappointed, because we're having a blast, and so are our friends. But a new song's coming on, one I'm not familiar with.
Just when I'm walking away, Stephanie grabs my arm. "Oh, baby, baby!" she says loudly in my ear. "Strike a femme pose for that butch queen!"
I look to where she's looking, and Dana's stepped into the middle of a crowd of women that are moving to a line dance. My mouth just drops open, because I've wanted to dance with her all night, and while I'd rather tango with her, I'll settle for this, if I can figure out the steps. They seem simple. I can't pay attention to them, though, for watching her. She's the most beautiful woman I think I've ever seen.
She turns my heart, and I love her so much that I feel I'm suddenly on the outside, wanting in. I've always been inside others' hearts, but I don't know her story. She's locked up tight and always has been, I imagine. I've seen her fa�ade crumble a couple of times, but never completely.
So I don't know what her secret is. Maybe it's a wish like mine, a bird that she keeps trapped in a gilded cage. How does she hold it in? I'm about to burst to free mine, to let it rush to her, a little red robin of love.
"Get OUT!" Stephanie crows. She sticks her fingers to her mouth and whistles. She nudges me. "That's your girl, sweetie. Ain't no doubt now. Ain't no doubt at all," she says gleefully.
"What do you mean?"
"It's the shuffle." She grinning, pulling my hand. "Remember that time we were at that bar in New Orleans and this song was playing and all the dykes were dancing to it? Remember?"
It was years ago. I remember being overwhelmed by hundreds of women in such a small space. "No."
She does the basic steps of the dance in front of me. "It's your California Hustle in a box. So pick it up, baby, because if your chick's out here now, it means she's a dyke. This is like the dyke anthem or something. Or it was that night. At that bar." She surveys the women gathered on my makeshift dance floor. "Gotta be a dyke thing."
She has her hands on my hips from behind, walking me through the shuffle and singing along. "'Why should I feel uptight?'" Her breasts press against me. Her entire voluptuous little body presses against me from behind, and I feel Dana's eyes on me. I know I'm turning red.
Stephanie's loud. At least she can carry a tune. "'Love had to show me one thing�'" She's shuffled over to Dana and I can't take my eyes away, she's so dangerously close to her. Steph leans nearer and says something to Dana that causes her to look my way immediately. I just grin at both of them like an idiot. I've picked up the steps by now and I�m growing comfortable enough to move in their direction.
Stephanie's shouting catcalls and she's not the only one. The first feminist I ever met is shouting, too. It's Raney, and he's sidled up to me, batting those long lashes like a girl. I smile my love for him. He's amazing. How many preachers know any dyke anthems? How many preachers know any dykes? He's a constant reminder that old-fashioned values don't necessarily mean narrow-minded principles.
He and Stephanie fill in the musical interlude while Diana Ross takes a break. I know it has to be Diana Ross, even if I don't know the song, because there's no mistaking her voice. I side step over to Steph and swap places with her so that she can dance with Raney. And I can dance with Dana. My hand reaches out to her and she takes it without looking up at me. I slip my other hand around her waist, and we're rocking on our heels, on our toes. Dancing with Dana. Sounds like a bad movie, feels like a heart attack. But a quick one; this dance doesn't invite much cuddling.
Stephanie's turned in a square - I was supposed to, too, but didn't - and she and Dana and everyone else are facing me. I catch Stephanie's eyes. She's having a blast. "'I was so right, so right!'" she sings.
I can't tell if Dana's singing or not, because her hair's fallen in her face. She's looking down at her feet and seems to be taking her dance steps very seriously. Raney's off-key, but he knows the song, and he sings it with gusto. "'Thought I could turn emotion on and off! I was so sure-'"
"'I was SO, SO SURE!'" Stephanie yells.
"'Til love taught me who was-'"
Raney's voice is twangy, but Stephanie drowns him out. "'WHO WAS!'"
"'The boss!'" everyone screams. Even some of those who aren't dancing scream it.
I look at Stephanie, Raney and Dana, at the women around me, and my heart fairly bursts with joy at this happiness, this togetherness, this healing moment. Yeah, this is a party and we're drinking tonight, flirting and laughing, but this dance isn't about anything so frivolous. It's about who we are. It's about unity and pride. It's about supporting each other. It's about us.
I join in the catcalls.