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

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

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

Feedback: Send comments, questions, and acts of bribery to amazonkiwi@aol.com 

Alix

by Dreams
amazonkiwi@aol.com

Prologue

 

This is the story of my life. My love life, to be more specific. A fascinating topic which I'm sure now has you at the edge of your chair, but I'm writing this for me, not you. Consider this a form of therapy, because I'm far too stubborn to go to a psychologist and spill out my guts to a person who is most likely doing a crossword puzzle instead of listening to me.

Twenty years in the life of Alix Morris have found her in love with two very different people. The first, was of course Steven Tyler, and I could go on about him, but I won't. I'll refrain myself for your sanity. I'll stick to the person whom I actually interacted with on a daily basis.

Her name is Jessica Heart. The love of my life. I would have chosen her even over Steven Tyler had the opportunity arose. Five feet, eight inches, one hundred and twenty-three pounds of complete perfection. Long, silky black hair and the darkest blue eyes I have ever seen on a person. Jessica could be a model or an actress. She belongs on the cover of magazines so that millions of people can look upon her with jealous admiration. Orphan … billionaire … and the kindest, gentlest soul I have ever met. That is Jessica Heart in a nutshell.

My best friend. And 100% unattainable.

Isn't that always the case, though? I never stood a chance with her, I knew this, but there was always that spark of hope that emanates from somewhere in your soul, whispering "there's a chance" in your mind, and you come to repeat it like a mantra. After a while you start to believe it, going against your better judgment. After all, that's what love does to you: rids you of all common sense.

Next Saturday is her wedding day. The fateful day when Jessica Lexi Heart becomes Mrs. Mathew Collins. And I, in all the irony that is my chaotic existence, get to be the maid of honor.

Chapter 1

 

I told her not to choose pink. No, I begged her. I got down on my hands and knees and pleaded with my best friend to have mercy on my soul.

"But this dress is so nice," Jessica argued, holding it up and smiling mischievously at the torture she was putting me through. "You'll look adorable."

The lady who was helping us at the bridal shop nodded in agreement, and I resigned myself to the inevitable fate that was the dreaded dress. I grabbed it and went into the dressing room to change out of the torn black jeans and black Aerosmith tee shirt I sported that day, an ensemble which matched my gloomy mood quite perfectly. The mirror before me reflected a shattered heart trying desperately to hide its true state. I felt like crying, but didn't. I didn't want Jessica to see how much this was hurting me. She didn't deserve my pain being thrown in her face. It wasn't her fault …

I dumped my outfit on the floor, and threw the dress over my head. The material felt cool against my skin, a contrast to the cotton and denim I was so used to wearing. I had no idea what material the dress was made of, but already I hated the object. I loathed what it represented: the bitter taste of hope's dying embers. And here I was… putting it on, like a second place winner settling for her loss.

The reflection in the mirror changed, and I was startled momentarily to see myself in a puffy pink dress. It clashed severely with the blue hue of my hair, and I felt utterly ridiculous.

I stepped out into the shop, where Jessica and the woman, who's name I think was Crystal were talking intently. They stopped when they heard me walk in, and stared at me. I bit my lip, a habit I'd developed my senior year of high school unbeknownst to myself until Jessica had pointed it out. "I feel like a walking advertisement for Pepto Bismol," I muttered, glancing down at myself.

Jessica smiled and walked all around me, taking in my ridiculous attire with an amused expression. "Really, Alix, like I could pass up the opportunity to stick you in a dress?"

I narrowed my eyes at her. "You shall pay, Mrs. Collins," I told her, my tone masking the pain behind the words.

At that moment, the door to the bridal shop burst open, announcing an anxious costumer. Roxanne Perez in all of her Latina glory stopped in mid-stride and stared straight at me, her mouth hanging open in surprise. Then she started laughing hysterically, pointing at me as she did so.

I would have beaten her up, but I decided to be mature and ladylike. After all, I was in a pink dress. You can't get more ladylike than that. So, instead I looked at Jessica for help, and received a pat on the head for my efforts.

When Roxanne finally calmed down enough to speak, the first words out of her mouth were, "Alix, you look like an Easter egg!"

I didn't find this amusing, but I felt vulnerable in my pink-clad state and had no intention of encouraging any further comments on my dress. Instead, I smiled and replied, "Wait until you see your dress."

Roxanne glanced worriedly at Jessica, who smiled broadly. "What are you making me wear?"

I crossed my arms against my chest, waiting for the shoe to drop.

As if on cue, Crystal brought out Roxanne's bridesmaid dress. It was orange. It was hideous. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever laid eyes on, and Roxanne stared at it in horror for over a minute.

"I'm not wearing that!"

Jessica waved away the comment with her hand. "If I got Alix to wear a pink dress, I can get you to wear an orange one." She took the dress from Crystal, and handed it to a stunned Roxanne. "Into the dressing room you go." She pushed Roxanne inside and closed the door. She turned around and smiled at me. "I love weddings. They're the perfect excuse to torture my friends."

Torture. Funny that she should choose that word.

Roxanne walked out of the dressing room a few minutes later and I started laughing. Now we both looked ridiculous. "Orange is not my color!" she stated, holding the dress up for emphasis.

"Oh cause pink is mine?" I retorted.

She looked at me impatiently. "No, you look completely ridiculous, but that's normal for you."

Jessica was enjoying this, I could tell. Her blue eyes were sparkling with held back laughter, and a smile played on her lips. It was almost enough to make me forget the hideous thing I was wearing.

Almost.

For once in my life, I had to side with Roxanne. "Jess, you know I love you, but if you don't pick a different dress for me, I shall be attending your wedding in the nude."

"Oh God no," Roxanne muttered. "You know she'll do it!"

I smiled to myself. They both knew I wouldn't.

Jessica started laughing. A hearty sound which will forever be music to my ears. "You guys really think I'd make you wear those things to my wedding?" She shook her head and motioned to Crystal who appeared with two identical dresses, one black the other violet. Jessica smiled. "These are the real ones."

Black. I looked at Jessica at that moment, and she caught my gaze and winked. I would've worn the dreadful pink dress for her. And she knew it.

 

 

 

A couple of hours later, I walked into my dorm room to find my roommate sprawled on the floor, staring intently down at a book whose cover I could not see. I dropped my keys on my desk. "Hey," I greeted.

"Men are evil," my roommate informed me, not looking up.

Nicole Fischer is a twenty-two year-old Women's Studies major, and an avid Feminist. She speaks constantly of Bell Hooks, Adrienne Rich and a zillion other names I can never remember. At first I thought these were friends of hers, but later I learned the truth. "So are women," I told her, collapsing on my bed with a groan. I was emotionally drained. This wedding was wreaking havoc on my heart.

"Jessica?" she guessed, finally looking up. Her light brown eyes showed concern, and she pushed the loose strands of brown hair behind her ears.

I simply nodded. "Two days until the wedding."

"I'm sorry, babe." Nicole lifted herself up from the floor, and sat down on her bed so she could see me better. "Did you get a dress?"

"It's black."

Nicole laughed. "That figures. You don't wear any other color."

"I'm in a constant state of mourning," I replied dryly. "'Black is all I see when I close my eyes, Black is in the night when the windows close, Black is all, yet nothing at all…'"

"Is that one yours?" Nicole asked.

"Nah. Jade's."

"Speaking of Jade, she called twice. And your sister called once." Nicole returned to the floor to continue her reading.

I reached for the phone, and dialed my twin sister's phone number. Rachel picked up on the second ring. "What's up?" I asked.

"Who's this?" Rachel asked, confusion in her voice.

I rolled my eyes. "It's not a matter of who am I, it's a matter of where am I."

"That's better. Hi Alix. You sounded far too normal to be yourself for a moment."

"Forgive me, Satan, if I'm not up to par. It hasn't been what you would call a good day."

"Please stop calling me Satan. It was funny when we were seven, but now it's just annoying."

"Sorry, Lucifer. To what do I owe the pleasure of your call?"

"Stripper," Rachel responded. "And before you reply with some smartass comment about incest, let me clarify. I meant the stripper for Jessica's bacholerette party."

"What about him?" I asked, annoyed at the entire concept.

"Well did you call him? I mean, the whole thing's arranged right?"

The joys of being maid of honor. "Yeah, he's coming. Everything's set. We're meeting at Jessica's at 7 tomorrow."

"Cool. See you there."

"Adios." I hung up, and dialed Jade Cooper's number. An English-accented voice picked up a few rings later. "Hey Jay. You rang?" I said.

"It was about bloody time. Listen, do you want to go out tonight? I thought we could go clubbing. We can pick up some guys."

"Guys?"

"Or girls, whatever," Jade replied. "Pick me up around 8 and we'll have some fun. We'll see about getting your mind off of Jessica getting married."

I laughed sadly. "I don't think anything could get my mind off of that." I thought about Jade's proposition for a moment, then shrugged. I had no plans. "Okay. Be ready by 8."

 

 

 

At 7:50, my VW beetle put-put-putted its way to Jade's house. She lives with her crazy Aunt Fifi, and I do mean crazy, in a two-story house the size of a shoebox. I'm not sure what it is that Aunt Fifi does for a living, seeing as she should have been committed by now, but I've never thought to ask. It's one of those mysteries of life better left uncovered.

I pulled into Jade's driveway, and honked the horn a couple of times. I turned up Aerosmith's "Angel" as I waited. This had become my theme song over the years and for the past few weeks I couldn't bring myself to listen to anything else.

A fuzzy head peered out of the window, and I waved. A second later, Jade Cooper stepped out into the porch, and joined me inside the vehicle shortly thereafter. The night of her graduation from high school, she had gone through with what she'd threatened to do for a year: she buzzed off her hair. When I first met Jade, her hair had been long and blue, it had then evolved to purple, then to red, then to orange, then to yellow, then to black, back to blue, and before I knew it, it was all gone. Two years later, it was still quite nonexistent, and I had grown accustomed to having a bald-headed friend. Perhaps when I dyed my own hair blue, it was in loving tribute to Jade's.

On this occasion she was clad in a tight black tee with the Sliders cast—she'd had a crush on Jerry O'Connell for as long as I'd known her—across the front, and a long black skirt. Doc Martins, as usual, and her trademark fishnet stockings, which were concealed beneath the skirt.

As for myself, I'd opted for the please-don't-try-to-pick-me-up look, which consisted of black Jnco jeans, and a black Care Bears tee shirt, with a picture of Grumpy Bear in the center. In this outfit, they'd never buy my fake ID.

"Not that bloody song again." Jade reached over and ejected my tape, replacing it with her own. Pretty soon Metallica filled the small confinements of the car, and I pulled out of the driveway, already used to the ritual of music exchange.

"So where are we going?" I asked her, turning down the music so I wouldn't have to scream over James Hetfield.

Jade shrugged, lighting a cigarette and rolling down the window. "My friend Beth said there was this cool club in Ft Lauderdale. Whispers I think it's called."

She handed me the directions, and I glanced down at them quickly. Near Las Olas Boulevard. I could find it.

"So I'm thinking of letting my hair grow out," Jade commented.

I took my eyes off the road for a moment to glance at her. "Yeah? Tired of getting hit on by girls instead of guys?"

"Actually yes! My sex life is suffering." She laughed. "Actually, I'm getting bored. You can't do much with peach fuzz hair, and I miss the colors."

I nodded. "Well I'm getting rid of the blue tomorrow."

"Going back to your original brown?" Jade inquired, flicking the cigarette outside. "I like the blue, Al, it gives color to your otherwise morbid personality."

I looked at her. "Yeah, you're one to talk." Then I shrugged. "Actually, I haven't decided on a color yet. I just didn't want to have blue hair for Jessica's wedding. She didn't say anything, but still. I was thinking of dyeing it black."

"And what color's the dress?"

"Black."

Jade started laughing. "You're going to be just like this pair of green eyes against this sea of darkness. Trying to turn yourself into a cat?"

"The transformation is almost complete," I assured her. "I just decided to shave for the occasion."

Jade shook her head, and turned up Metallica." 'Nothing Else Matters'," she told me. "You love this song."

And I do. We sat in companionable silence the rest of the way to the club.

 

Chapter 2

The smell of smoke and liquor assaulted my lungs upon entering the nightclub. My fake ID passed inspection with flying colors, and I wondered if my real ID would ever fair as well as my fake one when I turned twenty-one the following month.

Jade abandoned me after ten minutes to mingle in the dance floor, and I resigned myself to a table near the bar.

Whispers seemed like a nice-enough establishment, and would have been graded less harshly had my mood been better. After seven years of unrequited love, one tends to grow slightly bitter at the world.

"Anything to drink?"

I looked up at the waitress standing before me. "Dr Pepper if you have it," I replied. There was no sense in getting drunk and diving into a tree, or a lake for that matter.

"Designated driver?" the waitress guessed.

I shrugged, and she walked away, leaving me alone with my myriad of thoughts. I looked around. It was a straight club, much to my dismay, although with its location in downtown Ft Lauderdale I couldn't attest for the straightness of the people inside. Either way, it wasn't like I'd planned on hooking up with anyone, although it was nice to have options.

Jade joined me at the table, slightly sweaty and out of breath from jumping around in the dance floor. She held up a napkin proudly and grinned. "Only been here like half an hour and already I got digits."

I grabbed the napkin and looked at it, then handed it back. "And does Katrina know you don’t swing that way?"

"Actually, this is for you," Jade explained, handing it back. "She was hitting on me, and I told her that you were probably more her type. So she told me to give you her number cause she had to run."

"So she took one look at me and ran?"

"Yep. Quite literally actually." Jade shrugged. "Don't know how you do it, Al."

"It's a gift," I replied dryly.

"It's not like you're ugly or anything," Jade continued.

The waitress appeared with my Dr Pepper on the rocks, and I was grateful for the interruption. I took a sip from the cold liquid, a contrast to the heat permeating through the club.

Jade regarded the waitress, and said, "Help me out here. Would you say my friend is ugly?"

I nearly spit out the gulp of soda in my mouth.

"I wouldn't say that," the waitress replied.

I looked up into light blue eyes, and felt myself blush, an oddity in itself.

"So, given that you were of that orientation," Jade continued, much to my annoyance, "would you even go as far as saying that she's attractive?"

"Quite," the waitress answered, and winked in my direction before moving on to another table.

I shook my head and Jade shrugged.

"So there you have it," she said, "it's not your looks." She stared at me, hazel eyes narrowing in deep concentration as she studied my face.

I frowned. "Don't look at me like that, Jade. It freaks me out."

"Hey she didn't ask if I wanted anything to drink," Jade complained, looking around.

I placed my cup in front of her. "Here. Drink. Give your vocal cords a rest."

"You know I can't stand this crap." She made a face to illustrate her point. "It tastes like medicine."

I took back my soda, and held it protectively. "Don't listen to her," I whispered to the cup. "She knows not what she says."

"I'm gonna stop by the bar and go back to the dance floor," Jade announced. "Wanna join?"

I shook my head no and Jade left in search of alcohol.

I was bored. I had anticipated that I would be so I'd brought a book, Jennifer Fulton's Greener Than Grass, but it was far too dark to read where I was sitting. I finished my drink, and dropped some money on the table to pay for it, along with an overly friendly tip. I tended to over tip as it was, but the waitress humoring Jade went far and beyond the call of duty.

I made my way through the crowd of people at the dance floor until I ran into Jade. She grabbed my arms and started dancing, if you could call it that. I wouldn't. I cupped my hand around her ear and told her I was leaving, and to beep me so I could come back and pick her up. She nodded her assent, and I left the nightclub, happy be doing so at last.

Outside, the night was warm, as most nights in South Florida tend to be. I was glad that hurricane season was ending soon, rain rendered the summer months pointless.

Whispers was located on the second floor of a two-story building, and I walked down the stairs to the sidewalk below. A tourist shop fully stocked with billions of items bearing the Florida name occupied the first floor. They provided alternatives by substituting "Florida" with "Ft. Lauderdale" here and there. It's amazing what they won't do for money.

I made my way down the busy street. Ft. Lauderdale nightlife alive and booming all around me. People paraded back and forth in small groups, big groups and pairs. I could almost smell the ocean from where I was; could've heard it, too, had it not been for the noise.

I'd parked the buggie near Las Olas Boulevard, right across the street from the beach, and I was grateful to find it still there when I returned. I got in and sat there for a few minutes, trying to decide where to go. Peace and quiet in downtown Ft Lauderdale? Only one place came to mind. Destination decided, I pulled out of the parking lot, and made a left up to North Federal Highway.

I'd been to Pride Factory a few times in my life, so I knew where to find it. I parked at the nearest available spot by the entrance, and walked inside. Rainbow Café to the right, pride store to the left. I opted for the café, and ordered myself a latte before seating myself at one of the tables. It wasn't particularly crowded, and for that I was grateful. I pulled the book out of my back pocket, and started to read, taking occasional sips from my coffee.

People entered, people left. I'm not sure how long I'd been reading—not more than an hour, I'm sure—when a shadow fell over the pages of my book, forcing me to look up.

"Thanks for the tip."

Familiar blue eyes smiled down at me, and I was at a loss for a moment until I recognized the voice. "Did you follow me out here just to tell me that?" I asked the waitress from the club.

She laughed, and took my comment as an invitation to join me. "Actually, I sometimes come here for a cup of coffee after work," she explained, holding up the cup for emphasis.

I took that moment to study her. She was beautiful in a no-nonsense sort of way. Her face was framed by long, dark blonde hair which I think she'd had pinned up back at the club. She was wearing her uniform still, a white cotton shirt with the Whispers logo on the left breast pocket, and tight black jeans, which were currently hidden from my view. She didn't seem much older than me, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three at the most. "I see," I replied, not sure what else to say. "You're welcome about the tip," I added as an afterthought.

She extended her hand. "Valerie Skye. Call me Val."

"Alix Morris," I told her, shaking her hand. "Alix with an 'i'." I restrained myself from covering my right eye as I usually did when explaining the spelling of my name. I'd been trying to get out of the habit of doing that upon arrival at college, but much to my dismay it was like second nature. I barely caught myself that time.

"What are you reading?" she asked, taking a sip from her coffee.

I turned the book over so she could see the cover.

She nodded. "Good author."

Any doubt she must've had about my sexuality probably vanished at that moment, and I suddenly felt self-conscious. Beautiful women didn't usually start talking to me for no reason. In fact, women in general didn't usually start talking to me for no reason. "Yeah, she is," I agreed.

"I don't mean to be nosy, but I'm a bartender, so it comes naturally to me," she began, "but did you and your girlfriend have a fight?"

Confusion must have shown on my face because she quickly added, "The girl you were with at the club."

"Oh, Jade. No." I shook my head. "She's not my girlfriend. Just a friend." I looked at her and found her staring, so I looked away. I felt like fleeing. I had the unnerving suspicion that I was being picked up. It was then I remembered her original question. "We didn't have a fight. I just had to get out of there."

She nodded. "I know the feeling." She was silent for a second. "Do you mind that I joined you? All the other seats were taken."

I didn't bother to point out that there were available tables outside. "No it's okay." And it was. "I'm really just wasting time until Jade finishes having fun."

"So why aren't you having fun?" she asked.

"I'm not in the mood for people," I replied, more sharply than I'd intended. If I'd offended her, however, she didn't show it. So I continued. "I don't find the idea of strangers picking me up at a club fun. And I bet Jade will be wasted by the end of the night, so there was no point in my drinking. So really, Jennifer Fulton and a cup of coffee are all the excitement I can allow myself for tonight."

She watched me for a long moment, and her face broke out into a smile. "I hate to ruin your party, but this place is about to close in about fifteen minutes." She paused as though arriving at a decision. "Would you like to take a walk with me… down to the beach? I'll walk you back later so you can get your car."

I opened my mouth to refuse, but then I realized I had nowhere else to go. I bit my lip, trying to decide on a course of action. I didn't know this woman. She could've been a mass murderer for all I knew. All rationality and common sense in my brain told me that this was a bad idea. So to this day I have no idea why I agreed to go.

We walked outside. She led, and I followed, until we reached the sidewalk, then I fell in step beside her, wondering why I was walking to Fort Lauderdale beach when I had a perfectly good vehicle more than capable of taking me there.

I placed the book in my back pocket. Jncos are good for that kind of thing. With such big pockets, who needed a purse? Not that I would've been caught dead carrying one anyway. I was nervous. I didn't realize how much until I caught myself thinking about the joys of jeans versus purses. I stuck my hands in my pockets as I usually did when I didn't know what to do with them, and focused on not tripping.

Val pulled out a pack of cigarettes and waved it at me.

I shook my head no, and replied, "I find that not smoking is more rebellious these days."

She smiled, and took out a cigarette for herself. "Mind if I succumb to the powers of nicotine?"

I shrugged. "Your lungs."

She lit the cigarette and took a long drag, putting the pack and lighter away in one swift motion. "Do you go to school," she asked after a moment.

"Baldwin U."

"I go to Miami."

I was surprised. She didn't strike me as the college type. "What are you studying?"

"Visual Arts. I'm on an art scholarship, otherwise I'd never be able to afford it."

"Yeah, I couldn't afford M.U." I relaxed a bit now that there appeared to be a general topic of conversation.

"So what are you studying?" she asked.

"Theater and Film Studies."

"Do you want to be an actress?"

I looked up at her. "I am an actress. I just need to find a way to be acknowledged as such."

She laughed. "I understand completely."

I searched my head for something to say. I couldn't stand silence. "Thanks for not calling me ugly back at the club," I found myself saying.

"Why was your friend asking?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. She's weird."

"Were you having self-esteem issues?"

I had to laugh. "Nah, she was just trying to figure out why it is that I scare people away."

Val looked down at me, and I could tell she was trying to make sense of my statement. "I can't imagine you scaring anyone away."

"Stick around, you'd be amazed."

That put a lull in the conversation, and I mentally kicked myself for bringing up the subject. This had been a bad idea to begin with. I barely knew this woman. Why was I walking down Federal Highway with a total stranger who'd picked me up at a gay pride store-slash-coffee house? "Why did you ask me to take a walk with you?" I asked her.

"You're cute," was her reply.

I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing came out.

She laughed aloud, and looked at me. "Actually, I wanted some company."

I'm still not sure if that meant that I wasn't cute, or that I was cute and that she also wanted some company. Either way, I decided to change the subject. "Do you live around here?"

"Yeah. About a five minute walk from the club."

"But you commute to Miami every day?"

"I only go there part time," she answered. "I work too much."

I nodded, then frowned remembering something she had said. "Did you say you were a bartender?"

"Yeah, one of the waitresses quit today so I had to double as both." She glanced at me. "Where do you live?"

"I dorm at Baldwin."

"First year?"

I smiled. "Third. How old are you?"

"I'm twenty-one. You?"

"Twenty. I'll be twenty-one next month."

Val laughed. "I smelled fake ID all over you."

"Well not for long," I countered, a little defensively.

A car started honking, and Val paused until the noise subsided. "When's your birthday," she asked after a minute.

"October 31."

She seemed surprised. "Halloween? That must suck."

I snapped my head to look at her, caught off guard by her response. "It does suck," I agreed. "Thank you. Most people think it's the coolest thing on earth."

She shrugged. "Well I would imagine that you'd like your birthday to be your own. It kind of takes away from its importance when you have to share it with a big holiday."

"Exactly. I usually celebrate it the weekend before, otherwise my friends would never remember."

Val just nodded.

"When's your birthday?" I asked, trying to keep the conversation going.

"June first."

I smiled. "I was expecting you to say Christmas day, or Easter."

Val laughed, and shook her head. "Nah. Nothing special about my birthday."

"Sure there is. You were born then. It gives an otherwise mundane date meaning. I think that's what birthdays are all about actually."

Val caught my gaze for a few seconds. Then looked away.

We arrived at the end of South Federal Highway and before we had a chance to cross Las Olas Boulevard, my beeper went off. I almost missed its subtle beeping, drowned out by the zooming of cars back and forth.

"It's Jade," I announced.

"I'll walk you back."

We turned around, heading back in the direction we'd come. "Did you walk all the way to Pride Factory?" I asked her.

"Yeah. I like walking."

"Apparently." I smiled up at her.

She smiled back.

The walk back to the car was far quieter than I would have liked, but I didn't feel as uncomfortable in the silence. When we reached the car, I felt a sudden hesitation in saying goodbye. "Would you like a ride home?"

She seemed torn by the offer, and I could sense a war going on in her head. "Are you going back to Whispers?" she asked, instead of answering.

"Yeah. Jade's meeting me outside."

"You can drop me off there, then."

I unlocked the passenger side door. "Hop in." Then I walked to the other side. When I put the key in the ignition, I prayed the car would start, and I was relieved to hear the engine turn. Cars were unexpected things, very likely to embarrass you in front of people you'd just recently met. I pulled out of the parking lot, and headed toward the club.

Beside me, Val appeared to be searching for something in her pocket. A second later, she turned toward me and said, "Can I see your hand?"

My eyebrows narrowed in confusion, and I stole a glance at her. Hesitantly, I reached my right hand out in her direction. I felt her own hand cup itself beneath mine, holding it in place. Her palm was soft and warm against my skin, and I found myself wondering if the rest of her was as soft and warm. I mentally shook myself, and looked down to see her writing something on my palm. When she finished, she gently released my hand, and I pulled my eyes away from the road to read what she'd written. It was her name and phone number. Well this is a first, I thought to myself, not knowing what to make of the gesture.

"You don't have to call me," Val quickly explained. "I just thought…"

"Thanks." I smiled, but didn't add that I would call her. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was because at the time I didn't think that I would, and I didn't want to lie. I stopped the car across the street from Whispers, and Val went to get out, so I searched my mind for something to say. "It was nice meeting you, Val."

She smiled. "Nice meeting you, Alix with an 'i'."

And then she was gone. I sat back against the seat, shaking my head. My mind was a whirlpool of thoughts. What had just happened?

"Did a chick just get out of your car?" Jade asked, taking her place beside me.

I pulled out into the street without responding. I felt depressed, and I wasn't even sure why. "Yeah."

"Are you okay?"

I glanced at her and nodded. "Yeah. I'm okay. Did you have fun?"

"I met a guy."

"Really? Details please."

For the rest of the drive home, Jade told me all about this guy she'd met while smoking a 'fag' outside. The first time she'd used that expression I thought she meant she'd been killing a gay guy outside, but after nearly five years of friendship I'd gotten used to her British jargon.

After a while I zoned her out. I didn't do it intentionally, but my mind was unable to focus on the outside world. I kept thinking about Mathew and Jessica, and how happy they were. I knew their marriage would last forever; there was no doubt about it in my mind. Mathew was a great guy, and I loved him dearly. It would have been easier had I hated him, but I didn't.

Then my mind jumped to thoughts of Valerie, and the phone number on my hand. Would I have the guts to call her? Did she want me to call her? Maybe it wasn't even the correct phone number. I should have given her my number. Then I wouldn't have to worry about it. Did I want to see her again? Did I like her?

I pulled the car into Jade's driveway, and turned to find her staring at me. "What?"

"You haven't heard a bloody thing I said, have you?"

I shook my head. "Not a damn thing."

"Alright, I'll call you tomorrow and repeat myself. What time's the party?"

"Seven," I responded.

Jade nodded, and grinned mischievously. "Can't wait for the stripper." She winked. "Pick me up, okay?"

"Be ready by 6," I told her. "I have to get there early and make sure everything's good to go.

"Yep." Jade jumped out of the car, and I stayed in the driveway until she disappeared into the house.

I looked down at the number on my hand, the black ink a sharp contrast to the white of my skin; seven digits, two options, and a million possibilities. I sighed as I started toward home.

I should have given her my number.

Chapter 3

Much of Friday passed by in a blur of theater classes and acting workshops. At six, I stopped at Jade's to pick her up, and headed off to Jessica's to get the party set up.

Jessica's mansion rested more or less at the center of Baldwin. It was fifteen minutes from any place in Baldwin, and its allotted title, The Heart Mansion, had a double meaning in that sense. Heart was, of course, Jessica's last name, but it was also a metaphor for the location of the mansion, at the heart of Baldwin City.

We arrived around 6:10 and set up the food in the rec room. By seven guests started to arrive. By seven-thirty I'd escaped to Jessica's bedroom, where I collapsed on her king sized waterbed and willed myself to sleep. My night had been restless, having tossed and turned for hours. I had a class at 7am, for which I managed to drag myself out of bed. I'd been exhausted the rest of the day, weaving through my myriad of classes like a zombie on automatic pilot.

I fell asleep at some point, and awoke at the sound of the door opening. I looked up to find Jessica walking towards me, holding a bottle of Dr Pepper and two plastic cups filled with ice. She was dressed casually in blue jeans and a tight white tee shirt. By looking at her, you would never guess that her bank account exceeds four billion dollars and that she owns one of the biggest mansions in the United States. You would never guess it either by talking to her. And you would never, ever imagine all the pain she has gone through in her twenty-three years on this planet. Far too much misery for such an amazing person.

"Having fun?" she asked me, joining me on the bed, which protested the addition of her weight by forming a series of waves across the water mattress. She sat down, Indian style, looking down at me.

"A blast," I responded, feeling more or less rested. "Are you?"

She considered the question. "Well the stripper was certainly a surprise."

I grinned. "It wasn't my idea. Besides, it's supposed to be some kind of tradition."

"Of course."

"Why'd you leave the party?" I asked her, curious as to why she was there.

She handed me one of the cups, forcing me to sit up. "Can't have a party without my maid of honor." She poured the soda into both cups.

"Jess, you hate Dr Pepper."

"And you hate parties. Consider it a compromise." She smiled and lifted the cup. "To my best friend."

I smiled. "To mine."

I watched her take a sip, loving the expression of disgust that crossed her face. "I can't believe you like this stuff."

I drank the whole thing in one gulp. "It's wonderful. Did I ever tell you the story of how Dr Pepper got its name?"

Jessica looked thoughtful for a moment, as though going through her file of memories and examining each one for the required information. "Nope. Do tell."

I cleared my throat, taking on a mocking storyteller voice. "Once upon a time, there lived a young man who loved a young woman, and she loved him just as much. However, the girl's evil father, a man by the name of Dr. Pepper, refused the young man's request to marry his daughter, insisting that he would never amount to anything. The broken-hearted fellow, insistent on proving his worth to Dr. Pepper, created the formula for a deliciously refreshing soft drink that does not taste like medicine no matter what you people say, and named it Dr Pepper, after the girl's father."

"Did they ever get together?" Jessica asked.

"The guy and the father? I don't think so, but you never know."

Jessica laughed, and smacked my arm playfully. "You know what I meant."

I smiled, my flesh tingling where she'd touch me. "I don't know, actually."

"Well, I'm disappointed in you, Alix. You're supposed to know these things. How can I come to respect the story if I don't know the entire thing?"

I suppressed my desire to tackle her and tickle her to death for being such a pain in my ass. "I guess you'll just going to have to try and move on with your life somehow," I said instead.

"I'll do my best." Jessica stared down at the cup in her hand, uncertainly.

"I'll drink it if you don't want it," I offered.

"No, no. I will get this. It'll be like a milestone in my life."

"'The Night Jessica Heart Drank Dr Pepper,'" I teased. "They'll make a Broadway musical about it."

"It'll be a hit."

I smiled and watched her drink the remainder of the liquid. "You know, you're missing your party."

"They're having a bit too much fun with the stripper," Jessica said, shrugging slightly. "I didn't feel like being there."

"Know the feeling," I said. I hadn't meant to say that aloud, but it was too late to rein in the words.

Jessica stared at me for a long moment, as though searching for the answers to the questions in her mind. "This is killing you, isn't it?" she asked finally, softly, perhaps even sadly.

My heart started beating faster. I didn't want to get into this now. Not ever for that matter. "Is what killing me?"

Jessica sighed, wearing an expression which let me know we were in for a serious discussion. "My getting married."

I felt like running, running right through the balcony doors, down to the pool deck, then straight down the steps to the beach. I didn't want to think about it, or talk about it, or face it. But I didn't move. I also didn't say anything.

"Can I tell you something?" she asked. "And I can't believe I'm about to tell you this."

I nodded, suddenly fearful.

She paused, and I could almost see the wheels turning in her mind. I could feel her hesitation. Was she scared? "When I found out … about you. The day that Lynn posted your diary, and you ran out of the school and I ran after you and you were crying and everything felt like it was falling apart. I almost told you that … I've been with a woman."

The plastic cup slipped from my fingers, spilling ice cubes across the comforter. "Shit," I muttered, and started scooping them up, unable to meet Jessica's gaze. I felt her hands on mine before I saw them. She stopped me, and I dared, somehow, to look up into her eyes. She was waiting for me to say something. I couldn't even remember my own name let alone form a coherent sentence expressing my feelings. I tried to flash back to that day, out in the canal by Baldwin High, where sixteen year old me had sat across from eighteen year old Jessica, praying to a God I wasn't sure I believed in not to let her hate me. Had she told me then what she'd just told me, my reaction would have been much different; I would've felt hope. As it happened, five years later, sitting on her bed, the night before her wedding, I felt my heart shatter to a million pieces and scatter over my soul.

"Please say something," Jessica whispered.

"Who?" was all I managed to say.

Jessica hesitated, drawing in a long breath, and I could tell she hadn't wanted me to ask that question. She looked around, unable to answer for a minute. Finally, she said, "Lynn."

I felt the world stop. Everything around me went mute, and I thought I was about to pass out. "Wow. If I thought my heart was broken before…" I shouldn't have said that. I could tell my words caused her pain, and I couldn't bear the thought of hurting her. "I'm sorry, Jess. That wasn't fair of me."

"Don't apologize, Alix. It was stupid of me to tell you this now."

She was lost, I realized. Torn between not wanting to hurt me, and not knowing how to keep from doing so. There wasn't much she could do to make everything better, short of professing her undying love for me. How could I have been so selfish? All these years, blaming her unconsciously for not feeling the same way. Pretending I understood, while secretly hoping to get what I wanted in the end. She hadn't told me five years ago because she'd known it would give me a false sense of hope. She hadn't wanted to lead me on.

I looked at her, right into her dark blue eyes, rimmed with tears, and did the only thing I could think of doing to put some closure between us: I kissed her. I leaned forward, over a sea of melting ice cubes, and pressed my lips to hers. It lasted all of three seconds, if that, but in that short span of time seven years of silent longing came to a screeching halt. My heart felt complete again; wounded but not broken.

When I pulled away, I waited for her reaction, worried suddenly that I'd made a huge mistake.

"I thought you promised never to do that?"

I smiled, cause I could tell she was teasing. "If you weren't getting married tomorrow, Ms. Jessica, a lot of my promises would be flying out the window."

Jessica laughed, and grabbed my hands, pulling me in for a hug. "I love you. I hope you know that."

I hugged her tightly, letting her words coat my spirit. "I love you too." Then I pulled away and looked at her. "Alright. Now you're going to have to backtrack on this. You said you slept with Lynn Hauffman?"

"Well.. we were young. We were … curious."

"Ugh. That's so disgusting, Jess." I stuck out my tongue to illustrate my disgust. "I'm offended too. You couldn't get curious with me?"

Jessica smiled. "We weren't friends then. And we didn't really do much. Just—"

I held up my hands to stop her. "No no. Too much information."

"You asked."

"But...with Lynn? How old were you?"

Jessica thought about if for a moment. "Fifteen."

"So, you cheated on Julian with her?" I had to laugh. Then I stopped. "That's what did it. He found out, didn't he?"

Jessica lied down, staring up at the ceiling. "She told him."

"So that's why he…" I didn't want to say the word rape, even if that's what had transpired. It made me too angry.

Jessica took a deep breath and nodded. "Yep. I guess he felt threatened, that he wasn't satisfying me or something." She shook her head as though to clear it from the memories.

"So then why did he and Lynn get together?" The soap opera of her life never seemed to end. When I thought I had Jessica Heart all figured out, she revealed something new that threw everything out of whack. So many questions were suddenly answered, and yet so many new ones appeared in their place.

Jessica sighed. "They didn't. It was a cover up. They were blackmailing each other. Julian threatened to tell about what Lynn and I had done, and Lynn threatened to tell about what Julian had done to me."

"And you?"

She shrugged. "My parents died. I was too fucked up to care what Julian and Lynn doing."

I let it all sink in. It made sense finally. "Thanks for telling me. I finally understand."

She smiled at me, taking my hand. "I told you it was a complicated story, remember?"

I remembered. "So is that how you got Lynn to stop harassing me? You blackmailed her. You threatened to tell about you guys."

"You got it."

I nodded. It made sense. After Lynn posted my diary all over school, announcing to the world that I was bisexual and in love with Jessica, Lynn had mysteriously backed off. In fact, she kind of disappeared all together for a while. When she'd returned, she was like a brand new person. Not nice—Lynn Hauffman could never be nice—but not really mean either. "You would have done that for me? Told people what had happened? It would've been equally bad for you too."

Jessica smiled. "I didn't care. I didn't have anything to lose, and Lynn knew that. So she backed down."

I patted Jessica's arm. "Well, Jess, I'm glad that it's taken five years for all of this to make sense."

"Patience is a virtue."

"I wouldn't know about patience." I stuck my tongue out at her, to keep the mood light. "So, last night of single hood."

"I know," Jessica said thoughtfully. "It seems so unreal."

I nodded. "I'm going to miss you while you're off honeymooning in Europe."

"I'll send a postcard." She laughed, when she saw my raised eyebrow. "I'll send a few."

"A little better." I bit my lip absently.

Jessica watched me silently. "What's up?"

It was unnerving that she could read me so easily. I had to stop biting my lip. "I met someone last night," I told her.

That caught Jessica's attention. "Oh? Like a someone, someone?"

"Like a girl someone." I watched to see her reaction. She was waiting for me to go on, so I did. "Her name is Valerie. She's a bartender at this club in Ft. Lauderdale."

"Cute?"

I sighed. "Beautiful," I admitted.

Jessica nodded. "So…"

"So should I call her?"

Jessica started laughing. "Well you should if you want to." She reached for the phone, and pointed it at me. "Call her now. Invite her to the wedding."

I stared at her. "Are you crazy?"

"Some may think so. Here." She handed me the phone.

I stared down at the receiver in my hand, actually considering the idea. I'd memorized Valerie's phone number. I still don't know why. I hit the "talk" button, and dialed the number. After three rings, the machine picked up and I quickly hung up. "She's not home." I was both relieved and disappointed.

Jessica shrugged. "Try again later."

I knew I wouldn't.

 

 

I must have fallen asleep at some point, because the next thing I knew I was waking up to the sound of the ringing phone, and Jessica's groggy voice muttering a tired, "Hello?"

I kept my eyes closed, curious to know who was calling, but too tired to get up. So I just listened instead.

"Alix?" I heard Jessica say. "She's sleeping. Who's this?" Pause. "Valerie?"

I jolted awake at the sound of her name.

"Oh wait, she just woke up," Jessica said, handing over the receiver. She gave me a funny look, and lied back down, watching intently.

I took a deep breath, and said, "Hello?"

"Hey, you called?"

I was confused. Had I left a message without realizing it? "Yes I did. How did you know?"

Valerie laughed. "Caller ID. I knew it would come in handy some day."

"But I don't live here. How did you know it was me?"

"Well the address read Baldwin, and I only know one person from Baldwin. I put two and two together, and that's what I got."

"Most people get four," I joked.

She laughed. "Well I never was good at math. I'm glad you called."

"You are?"

"Yeah, I didn't think you would. So… uh, why did you?"

I glanced at Jessica. "Why did I call?" I asked, prolonging the answer. Jessica nudged me with her knee. "Well, my best friend is getting married tomorrow and she thought-I mean, I thought that maybe you'd like to come to the wedding." This was such a stupid idea. Why would she want to come to Jessica's wedding? She didn't know her. She barely knew me.

"Damnit. I have to work at two."

I felt my heart sink. "That's alright. Another time then."

"I get off work at nine, do you think you'll be free by ten?"

I tried to think logically for a moment, but my mind failed me. "What time do you think the reception will be over?" I whispered to Jessica.

She shrugged. "Our flight is at ten."

"I should be," I told Valerie. "But I will be at my friend's house."

"Hmm." Valerie paused before continuing. "Alright, how about I pick you up there?"

"Here?" I glanced at Jessica and she arched an eyebrow. "Alright. Sounds good." I gave Valerie instructions on how to get to Jessica's, and hung up. I sat there silently for a moment trying to digest the occurrences of the past few minutes. Finally, I looked at my best friend, the woman I loved more than breathing, and said, "I guess I have a date."

She sighed dramatically. "At last. Some competition."

I laughed, placing the receiver back on its base. I wondered briefly if Jessica could ever have competition, and if so, if Valerie could be it. I lied down, glancing at the time. It was only eleven. Jessica had basically missed her entire party, and I was touched that she'd done so to spend time with me. "Do you think everyone went home by now?" I asked.

"I doubt it, but I'll bet you twenty dollars that someone goes home with the stripper."

I smiled at the thought. "Probably my sister. She needs to get some badly."

Jessica turned over to look at me, and poked me in the ribs. "You're one to talk."

"Hey! How dare you compare my lack of a sex life to my sister's? There's a difference you see."

Jessica laughed. "Enlighten me, please."

I looked at her, quite defiantly in fact, and said, "I could get laid. I just choose not to. She wants to get laid, she just can't."

"Doesn't she have a boyfriend?"

"Yes, that's the problem. Saint Jonathan must wait for the marriage vows before he can examine anyone's no-no special place."

Jessica burst out laughing. "Oh, you're kidding? I didn't think there were people like that left in the world. Guys anyway."

"Leave it to my sister."

"Well I think it's sweet."

It was my turn to laugh. "And you and Mathew waited how long?" I held up my hands. "Wait. Forget I asked that. I really don't want to know." I turned on my side so I was facing her. "Speaking of sleeping together, can I sleep with you tonight? I'm too exhausted to drive back to school."

"Yeah, just don't kick me like you usually do."

"Just for that I'll kick you twice as hard."

Jessica arched an eyebrow. "Do you want to sleep on the couch?"

"Ouch. Fine. I'll be good." I rolled out of bed to use the bathroom. I was suddenly feeling better than I had in a long time. I had a date. A date. Me. I was nervous and I was scared, but most of all, I realized, I was really excited.

Chapter 4

 

My eyes opened slowly and my gaze finally focused on Jessica's form silhouetted in the balcony. I glanced at the alarm clock next to me, and read 5:56 on the display screen, before easing myself out of bed.

Jessica had her back turned to me. She was staring at the ocean in a way I'd seen her do so many times before. I wondered if that would be the last time I'd see her standing there without Mathew by her side, and my heart flooded with conflicting emotions.

I leaned against the frame of the sliding glass doors, not wanting to disturb her. Before us, the ocean roared, its surface reflecting the sky's golden colors of dawn, and I wondered what she was thinking.

"I love how you do that," she said without turning.

Her voice startled me. "Do what?"

She turned to face me, and I took that as an invitation to join her on the balcony. I walked outside, feeling the salty morning breeze on my face. I leaned up against the railing, waiting for her to answer my question.

"I love how you always wait for me to say something first," Jessica told me. "Like you're scared you'd be interrupting something important otherwise."

I sighed to myself. She had no idea how well I knew her. "You're up early," I said, changing the subject.

Jessica shrugged, turning her attention back to the view before us. "I couldn't sleep. Alix do you think I'm too young to get married?"

I stared at her. "What?"

"You know. Should Mathew and I wait a few more years?"

I shrugged. "What's the point? You could wait ten more years and you know you'll still be with him." I touched her arm. "Look, Jess, I couldn't think of a better couple than you and Mathew. You're perfect for each other."

Jessica let out a long breath, and smiled. "Yeah. It's just, I feel like I'm about to grow up, you know?"

"At least you get to grow up with the one you love."

She ran a hand through my hair, and smiled. "That's true."

"Okay, enough emotional talk," Roxanne muttered, walking out into the balcony. "That's all you two do. Blah blah blah, I love you Jessica. Blah blah blah, I love you too Alix but not in that way. Give me a break." She straightened out her bouncing brown curls, and put her arms around both of us. "Girls, today is the end of a era."

The end of an era, I thought to myself. I looked from Jessica to Roxanne to the rising sun on the horizon. It occurred to me at that moment that the end of an era marked the beginning of something new.

I put my arm around Roxanne's waist and leaned my head on her shoulder. Jessica did the same. And the three of us looked on over the balcony railing to the place where the ocean met the sky, each of us lost in thoughts of our uncertain futures.

 

 

 

I've had this repeating dream for years now, where I'm standing at the altar, and Jessica is walking towards me, wearing a beautiful wedding gown, and looking happier than she's ever looked in her entire life.

My dream came true.

Only, I was wearing a black maid of honor's dress and when Jessica stopped walking she was standing beside Mathew and not me.

But that was close enough, I think. Perhaps the dream had been a premonition of sorts. Or maybe it had just been my overactive imagination. Maybe a little bit of both.

I looked around the church where people were gathered on both sides. The groom's side was occupied in the front by Mathew's parents and his two sisters, Nina and Sarah. Then there were other people I didn't really recognize. Jessica's side consisted of the mansion's staff. Maurice, the butler, gave Jessica away and took his place beside Rosa, the housekeeper. Jessica's grandparents had phoned in that morning to announce they couldn't make it. Jessica's parents … well… that's a whole different story. So as far as family, only Jessica's cousin, Amber, had made it. And she stood beside me as a bridesmaid.

"Dearly beloved…" The priest's voice rose over the silent crowd, echoing across the large expanses of the church, and I suddenly felt like I was trapped in my worst nightmare. Although, had it been my worst nightmare Jessica would've been marrying Steven Tyler instead of Mathew, so I knew this had to be real. "… If anyone knows of any reason why these two should not be married, speak now or forever hold your peace…"

That would've been my big chance to make an ass of myself, so thankfully I stayed quiet. I really didn't know of any unselfish reason why Jessica and Mathew shouldn't be together. Still, I looked around, waiting for someone to say something though I knew nobody would.

Then, before I knew it, I heard Jessica say, "I do", and as those words filtered through my hazy consciousness, I realized that nothing in my life would ever be the same.

 

 

 

A few hours later I was working on my fourth piece of wedding cake, looking around as the wedding reception went on around me.

The happy couple had decided to have it at the mansion, and I couldn't think of a more beautiful place for it. Especially seeing it decorated as it was. Jessica and Mathew had hired a decorator named Dominique who'd been hitting on Mathew since day one. Jessica found it amusing; Mathew not so much.

"Good cake?"

I looked up to find the groom smiling down at me. "I hate cake," I muttered, stuffing a big piece into my mouth. Well, I generally hate cake. But this one was good.

Mathew pulled up a chair, and joined me at the table. "I'm hiding from Dominique."

I shook my head. "You should be hiding from his assistant. I think he's not too happy Dominique's got the hots for you, if you know what I mean."

Mathew shrugged, and batted his eyes. "Why do I have to be so gorgeous?"

I choked on my mouthful of cake, and managed to swallow before bursting into laughter. I smiled at him. "I don't know, Matt. I think you just got lucky. I mean, I'm having trouble containing my own lust for you."

"I guess that's why you're drowning your sorrows in cake." Mathew nodded, playing along. "I'm sorry that I have broken your heart, Alix dear."

I patted his hand. "That's alright. I'll get over you some day."

He chuckled, and looked around. "I can't believe we're married."

"Yeah." I nodded, feeling melancholic all of a sudden. Mathew and I had never really talked about my feelings for Jessica. We joked around about it, but it was understood between us that there wasn't anything either of us could discuss that would change anything, so we kept the topic off-limits. "It was about damn time you took her off the market." I winked at him.

"Well if you ever change your mind about that threesome…"

I kicked him under the table. "Jerk. What kind of girl do you think I am?"

"Well all bisexual chicks are into that kind of thing, right?"

This time I threatened him with the remains of my cake. "Say one more thing, and this will be all over your beautiful tux."

Mathew held up his hands. "Alright. I give up." He smiled. "Want to dance?"

"Yeah. Let's go make Jessica and Dominique jealous." He stood, and took my hand, leading me to the dance floor. I don't remember what song was playing. It was definitely not Aerosmith. "So where's your wife?" I asked him, as we joined the rest of the couples.

"I'm not sure. Maybe she ran off with someone else."

I nodded solemnly. "That's a definite possibility. You know how she is, always running off with the mailman, or the milkman, or the boogieman."

Mathew started laughing. "The boogieman?"

"Yeah, sure. You'll like the wedding gift I gave you."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yep. It's a leash, so you can keep your eye on her at all times. It's blue, too. Very manly color."

"I'm glad you're around to keep my masculinity intact."

I nodded. "My pleasure, Matty boy."

"So what did you get Jessica?"

"I got her an apron. Gotta keep those socially constructed gender roles in place."

"Definitely. Wouldn't want her getting any ideas."

The song, whatever it was, ended, so I pulled away from him, and then gave him a big hug. "Treat her well, okay? I know you will, but it's just one of those things you have to say anyway."

Mathew hugged me back. "If I ever treat her badly, I give you full permission to kick my ass."

We started walking back to the table. "Oh I'll be most happy to."

Maurice appeared suddenly at my side. "I'm sorry, Miss Alix, but there is a young woman at the front door inquiring about you."

I frowned. "What young woman?" Then it hit me. "Valerie?"

"I believe that's her name, Miss."

I excused myself from Mathew and walked as fast as I could (in the shoes I was wearing) into the house.

I found Valerie looking around the foyer. She glanced over when she heard me approach.

"Hi," I said lamely, not knowing what else to say. She was clad in tight black jeans again, and a navy blue baby tee with the words "Save Ferris" printed in orange across her chest. Black boots completed the outfit. I suddenly realized what I was wearing and how stupid I must have looked. "You're early," I found myself adding.

"I know, I'm sorry. I'll go."

The tone of her voice made me flinch slightly, and I wondered if I'd done something wrong. "Please don't." I had the unexplainable feeling that if I let her walk out of the door I'd never see her again, and for some reason I couldn't bare the thought of that. "The reception is almost over. Just hang around a little longer and we can leave."

Valerie looked uncertain. "I'm not exactly dressed for the occasion," she said, her tone softer this time. "I didn't realize you'd invited me to Jessica Heart's wedding."

I shrugged. Being best friends with someone famous sometimes made you forget that they were famous at all. "She's my best friend."

Valerie nodded at the dress. "Bridesmaid?"

"Maid of honor." I waited for her response, afraid that the news would frighten her off. Most people would have been thrilled, but Valerie looked ready to bolt. "I didn't know it would bother you."

Valerie was silent for a moment, and I readied myself to chase after her if she did take off.

Before she had a chance to say or do anything however, Jessica appeared at the top of the stairs. Her wedding dress was gone, now revealing a pair of faded jeans and a black Tweety tee shirt. Her long black hair hung loose as usual, and I was momentarily afraid that after seeing Jessica, Valerie would forget all about me. The irony of the thought caused me to frown.

Jessica reached the bottom of the stairs a moment later, and approached Valerie with a smile on her face. She extended her hand. "I guess you must be Valerie."

Valerie shook her hand hesitantly, glancing at me as though wondering how Jessica Heart knew her name. "Call me Val. Interesting wedding dress."

Jessica laughed. "I was going for the modern look." She turned her attention to me. "I guess you're out of here?"

"When are you guys leaving?" I asked, torn between wanting to leave with Valerie and wanting to cling to Jessica and never let go.

"As soon as I find Mathew. Have you seen him?"

I nodded, and pointed outside. "I was just dancing with him, but Dominique cut in so you might wanna go out there."

"I'm sure he's enjoying it." Jessica turned back to Valerie. "Well Val, you're welcome to anything at the reception. There might be cake left if someone over here didn't eat it all." She glanced pointedly at me, and I glared at her.

Valerie grinned slightly. "Thanks."

"I'm going to find Mathew and sneak out of here," Jessica announced. "Think anyone will notice?"

"Not a chance," I told her. "Have a great honeymoon."

Jessica winked. "I will." She gave me a hug, which felt so final in spite of the fact that I'd be seeing her again in a couple of weeks. "Have fun girls. Nice meeting you Val."

I watched her walk away, then turned to find Valerie gazing at me with an unreadable expression on her face. Could she tell how I felt? Was it that obvious? I managed a smile. "Let me get out of this thing and then we can go." I headed for the stairs, and motioned for her to follow me. I'd stopped by my dorm earlier that day to get a change of clothes. There was no way I was going out on a date wearing a dress. Was this a date?

"I like your hair," Valerie commented.

"I figured I'd look a little more sophisticated for the occasion." To be honest, I'd simply asked the hairdresser to get rid of the blue and make it black, but Roxanne and Jessica had insisted on her giving me a trim. The trim turned into a completely new do. Instead of black, it was now light brown with reddish highlights. Instead of shoulder-length, it was now cut short around my ears, falling forward into my eyes in a way that was becoming annoying. Jessica and Roxanne agreed that it brought out the green of my eyes, and made me look older and more mature. It makes me wonder what I'd looked like before.

"It looks nice."

"Thanks." We reached the top of the stairs where the staircase split in two. I turned to the left, and headed up a new flight of stairs. Valerie followed closely, looking around in amazement. At the top, I turned to the right, down a long corridor to the very last door at the end of the hallway. I threw open the double doors to Jessica's bedroom, allowing Valerie to pass through first.

"Holy…" Valerie's jaw fell open.

I couldn't say I blamed her. The room had nearly given me a heart attack the first time I'd walked inside. I guess after all these years one took these things for granted, so I attempted to look around again, trying to see it as Valerie must have seen it.

The area to the left had once been a basketball court, complete with a hoop and everything, but had been recently turned into a small gym. The wall, which had once sported paintings of an outside basketball court, had been covered with a large mirror. The hardwood floors were now carpeted in a dark blue color, as was the rest of the room.

Jessica's bed was directly in front, and the wall behind it had been painted to look like the bottom of the ocean. Jessica has a thing with the ocean. I don't think she could ever live anywhere that wasn't on the beach.

Her king-size waterbed rested on top of a wooden platform with a couple of wooden steps leading up to it. Two nightstands on either side of it, along with a matching wall unit, completed the set. On either side of those, were two doors. One led to the bathroom, and the other to the walk-in closet, which was big enough to house an entire family of four comfortably.

To the right were French double doors leading out to the balcony, and a living room-type area was to the side of that. A black-leather couch faced a Phillips flat screen TV (a recent addition at that point), and beanbag chairs of different colors were strewn about the carpeted floor. There were a couple of wall units at either side of the TV, both housing movies and stereo equipment. Jessica had invested in a DVD player a few months prior, and it had become her baby.

At the other side of the double doors, was Jessica's desk. Her desktop computer and its many components rested on its surface. Next to that was another wall unit filled top to bottom with books. That particular wall was painted to simulate the ocean at sunset.

The wall behind me was painted a very dark blue, with a gorgeous, full moon glowing over the horizon, casting its reflection over the water.

"Makes your room at home feel like a shoebox, huh?" I said, after a moment.

Valerie laughed. "My entire apartment could fit inside this room about five times."

I smiled, and walked over to the bed, where I'd thrown my change of clothes. I'd been in a hurry that morning, so I wasn't entirely sure what I'd selected, but I figured one couldn't go wrong with jeans. I'd chosen a different pair of black Jncos this time. The ones I'd been wearing Thursday night had a picture of a kid on a skateboard above the left back pocket. These had a mad scientist with green hair embroidered on the right back pocket. I liked these better anyway because they were baggier. As far as a shirt, I'd opted for a black Garbage tee shirt, with Shirley Manson on the front in black and white.

Grabbing the clothes, I turned to Valerie. "If I can find my way out of this dress, I'll be back in five minutes." She smiled, but I wasn't entirely sure I was kidding. I walked into Jessica's closet, and shut the door.

Once upon a time, it had been filled with clothes as far as the eye could see. A couple of years ago, Jessica had decided that one person did not need so many outfits in one lifetime, and gave them all away to the Salvation Army. I did manage to steal a few of her black tee shirts, though.

Catching my reflection in the mirror, I flinched. I had to get out of that dress and pronto. For a second I actually thought I looked good.

That's when dilemma number one presented itself: the zipper. "Shit," I muttered, trying to get my arms around the back, and failing miserably in the process. Dilemma number two was deciding what to do about it. I bit my lip, running a list of possibilities through my mind. Granted, it was a very short list. I looked around, as though expecting Jessica's clothes to take life and help me out of the predicament.

In the end, I did the only thing I could. I took a pair of scissors and cut right through the dress. Okay, just kidding. I thought about it, but I had no scissors available, so I took a deep breath and walked out of the closet (in a completely non-gay related way).

Valerie was standing at the same spot I'd left her. She arched an eyebrow when she saw me, then she grinned. "There are too many smartass comments running through my mind to pick just one."

"Darn. Maybe you can tell me all of them later." I pointed to the back of the dress. "Can you help me?"

Valerie coughed, to keep from laughing, I imagine, then walked over to me. "Isn't it a little early on in the date for me to be undressing you?"

Flirting: definitely not one of my strong points. It occurred to me then that I was going out with this woman, whom I barely knew. What was she expecting from me? I'd never really done this before. Did she think we'd have sex that night?

Valerie reached for my dress, and I jerked back. She frowned. "I'm sorry, I was just teasing."

I made a mental note to kick myself when she wasn't looking. "My fault. You surprised me, and I've been known to be rather jumpy." We were off to a good start. I turned around so she could unzip me, which she proceeded to do quite hesitantly. I was sure that she was having second thoughts about this entire thing, and I had to admit that I wasn't feeling entirely confident about the situation. But I was willing to give it a shot. "Okay, this time, I will come back out wearing something different. I hope."

I escaped into the closet, and leaned my back against the door. There I was, twenty years old, and I'd never even kissed a girl. Unless you counted the two second act of desperation the night before with Jessica. So yes, I was freaking out. A lot. Especially since my safety blanket was on her way to Europe with her husband, and the girl at the other side of that door was really gorgeous and I had no idea what the hell I was doing.

Deep breaths, Morris.

I said that to myself a few times, then kicked off the dreaded shoes. Three minutes later, I was back in my normal attire. And I had to admit that the haircut did look kind of cool. I stood before the mirror, trying to imagine what Valerie saw when she looked at me. To this day I can honestly say that I have no idea what the hell she saw in me.

Valerie was sitting on the last step leading up to the bed, and she rose as I walked in the room. "Feel better?" she asked.

"Yes, dresses aren't my thing. Now, if I manage to find my shoes we can be on our way." I started looking around the floor. "Where are we going, anyway?"

"I was kind of hoping you'd have some ideas."

My Airwalks peered out at me from behind the black leather couch, and I sat down on it to put them on. "Wait a second, didn't you ask me out?"

Valerie came around the couch, and stared down at me. "Well, I tried to think of someplace but I don't know you well enough to know where you'd want to go, so I figured I'd let you choose."

I finished with the shoes, and my feet cried out in glee that they weren't clad in fancy footwear. I wasn't sure what to make of Valerie's inability to make a decision as to where we should go. So I tried to put myself in her position for a moment, and decided that she was right. How was I supposed to know what she would like to do on a Saturday night? I had enough trouble figuring out what I wanted to do on any given day.

"The whole dinner and a movie cliché seemed a bit overdone," Valerie continued. "I thought we could be more creative than that."

I smiled, and stood up. "At this rate I don't see us doing anything at all." I looked around the room for a second, gathering my thoughts. "Would you like to take a walk down the beach? We never did make it that far the other night."

Valerie nodded. "Lead the way."

We took a shortcut through the balcony. There were stairs leading down to the pool deck and then down to the beach. It was a private sector, but it connected with the public area about a mile down.

I took off my shoes and socks when we reached the last step. I wasn't in the mood to for sand in my shoes. Valerie hesitated a moment, but then took off her boots, and placed them beside my Airwalks.

We started off down the shoreline. I didn't get too close to the water's edge because I didn't want the bottom of my jeans to get wet, but Valerie didn't seem to care. I was sure she'd jump right in the ocean with her clothes on if I dared her. And maybe I would have had it had been daylight, but it was dark and I wasn't sure how cold the water was.

I was being quiet, which was generally unusual for me, especially when nervous. It's amazing how much babbling a person can do in the right frame of mind. Astounding how quiet the same person can become when feeling out of sorts. This was a bad day for a first impression, or second impression or whatever it was. I needed to snap out of it and quickly before I blew something I still wasn't sure was mine to blow.

"I'm usually more talkative than this," I said suddenly, my voice rising over the crashing waves, which were relatively calm that night. There wasn't much wind blowing to cause anything above a gentle roar as the water rolled in and out of the shore in a way that had become symbolic of my life.

"I have mixed feelings about this part," Valerie responded, looking down at the water flooding her feet, and the sand giving under her weight.

Until that moment I had never truly listened to the sound of her voice. I'd heard the words she'd spoken, but the actual tone of her voice had fallen on deaf ears. It was soft and strong at the same time, feminine and powerful and sweet. The kind of voice you could listen to forever without growing sick of it. "What part is that?" I inquired, remembering her previous comment, and mentally shaking myself from my thoughts.

Sky blue eyes focused on me for a moment. "The part where we know absolutely nothing about each other and don't know where to start."

I shrugged. "We could play truth or dare."

Valerie's eyebrows shot upward at my suggestion. "Seriously?"

Truthfully, I'd meant it as a joke, but I didn't see why we couldn't. "Sure."

"Okay."

"Okay." Perhaps this had been a bad idea.

Valerie stopped walking suddenly, and took my hand, pulling me down on the sand so that we were both sitting side by side.

I liked that she was bold enough to touch me after I'd made a fool of myself earlier. I was also grateful that she wasn't as shy as I was when it came to that sort of thing. "So, who starts?"

"Well since it was your idea, I think you should go for it."

"Alright. Truth or dare?"

"Truth."

A question popped into my head immediately after, and I was happy that this didn't seem as difficult as I had originally expected. "What made you give me your number?"

Blue eyes narrowed slightly at the question, and she grinned at me. "That should be pretty obvious."

I shook my head. "I suck at obvious things."

"Well, I gave you my number because I wanted you to call me."

Score one for the smartass. "Touché. That's not exactly what I was going for, though."

She took a deep breath, and then said, "I didn't want you disappearing out of my life without getting a chance to know you better."

"There. Now that wasn't so hard was it?"

"Truth or dare?"

Frankly, I would've preferred a third choice, but then I figured that I could always fib my way out of the truth option. So, "Truth."

"Okay…" Valerie leaned back on her elbows, stretching out beside me, and I did everything within my power to keep my gaze from wandering. "Why did you call me?"

It was a fair enough question, one that I nearly missed having been too busy not-noticing her bellybutton ring. I wondered if she had a tattoo. "I called you for the same reason you gave me your number."

So with that it was established that we were generally interested in each other on some mysterious level. I couldn't help but think of fate, which I didn't usually believe in. Sometimes, though, fate really did seem like the perfect explanation for the more outlandish events of my life.

After a while, we dropped the game, and I lied down beside her on the sand as we continued to ask each other random questions. At some point I asked her about tattoos, and she smiled and said she had two; a small rose on her right shoulder blade and a broken heart on her left breast. I didn't ask to see them, but it made me wonder about the broken heart. Had she been hurt at some point in her life? I couldn't imagine why else anyone would choose to permanently brand her skin with such an icon. Unless there was some farfetched explanation that would never occur to me in a million years.

While she was looking up at the sky, I took the opportunity to look at her. Beautiful was all I could think of to describe her. I found myself comparing her to Jessica, though I knew it was wrong of me to do that. Still, I couldn't stop myself. Valerie didn't have Jessica's exotic looks, but there was something else that attracted me to her. And I wasn't sure what it was. Not yet, anyway.

Her skin glowed under the soft touch of moonlight spilling through the palm trees. Her blue eyes were fixed on some faraway spot, blinded by whatever thoughts danced in her mind. For one strange, irrational moment, I wished to crawl inside her mind and get lost in the maze of her dreams. Was I so desperate for love?

Her eyebrow ring shone momentarily as the metal reflected the light. She turned to look at me, an eyebrow arched in question. "You were staring at me."

"No I wasn't," I said, lamely, embarrassed I'd been caught.

Valerie rolled over on her side, propping her head up with her hand. She proceeded to gaze at me curiously without saying anything.

I grew slightly uncomfortable under her scrutiny. "What are you doing?"

"I'm staring at you."

"I see that. Why?"

"Why were you staring at me?" she asked, her mouth creasing into a smile.

Trapped. How did one go about answering that question without embarrassing oneself? "I was looking at your piercings. Did they hurt?" I congratulated myself for my wonderful bullshitting abilities, as I waited for Valerie to respond.

She looked skeptical for a moment, and I wondered if she was disappointed or impressed by the skillful way I'd dodged that bullet. "They didn't really hurt, but they were sore for a while, my tongue ring especially. Plus it sucked that I couldn't do much with it for three months."

"That must have hindered your sex life," I said, and wondered if I was flirting.

Valerie grinned. "If I had one maybe."

Interesting that she should say that. Why would she, I wondered? I admit I was being paranoid, but I couldn't help but question her intentions. Trusting total strangers wasn't something I was keen on doing. I had enough trouble trusting my best friends. Luckily, I could pretend not to be paranoid. "I can relate."

"Would you like to get something to eat?"

Food! I hadn't realized how hungry I was until she said something. "I would love to. I'm starving."

Valerie stood up, and offered her hand to help me. "All that wedding cake is long gone, huh?"

I let her pull me up, but glared up at her. "That mouth of yours is going to get you in trouble one of these days."

Valerie grinned brightly. "I hope so."

 

 

Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

"About?"

"Relationships," I responded honestly.

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

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

"How so?"

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

Valerie frowned slightly. "Um…"

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

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

I smiled. "Hey these are valid questions."

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

"Sure."

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

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

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

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

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

"Aren't you gay?" I demanded.

"Last time I checked."

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

"I never said you weren't."

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

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

"What are you doing?"

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

Argument?

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

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

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

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

"Just in general."

"Well I guess that depends."

"On?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Sure."

"When's good for you?"

"How about tomorrow at eight?"

"Sounds good."

"Meet you at my club?"

"Okay."

Silence.

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

"Hmm?"

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

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

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

"How good of a kisser you are."

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

"No. I have factors for kissing too."

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

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

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

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

"I appreciate that."

"Any time."

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

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

"Sounds like a plan."

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

But just a little.

 

 

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

Perhaps this had been a bad idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. "Sounds about right."

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

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

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

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

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

"Never heard of them either."

"I guess you're not into ska."

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

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

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

"Both." She winked at me.

I smiled, turning my attention to the window.

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

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

"Oh yeah?"

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

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

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

"Can it be both?"

I laughed. "Possibly."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'll walk you out then."

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

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

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

"You're so difficult."

I smiled. "Much better."

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

"Yep. Whispers at eight."

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

"Yes mom."

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

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

 

Chapter 6

 

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

Nicole mumbled something unintelligible from behind a book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No and yes."

"No and yes what?"

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

"What's her name?"

"Valerie."

"Valerie what?"

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

"Sounds like a porn star."

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

From Subject

Dreamer bon jour

I smiled to myself and clicked on the letter.

Hey Al,

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

Always,

Jess

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

Subject: déjà vu

 

Jess,

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

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

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

Love always,

Alix

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Something wrong?"

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

Valerie seemed confused. "Uh, the fourth."

"Mind if I meet you there?"

She frowned. "Why?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Feathers."

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

"That's my phobia."

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

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

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

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

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

"Thank you." She smiled back at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do I pass inspection?"

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

I looked up. "McDonald's?"

"Well, I like McDonald's."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valerie started laughing.

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

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

"What are you taking?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"For school?" I asked.

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

I smiled. "Say 'car.'"

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

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

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

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

"Do you want to stay here forever?"

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

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

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

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

"Oh?"

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

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

"You didn't want to call?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We started walking.

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

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

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

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

"I appreciate your honesty."

"Any time."

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

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

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

And so I was. "Oops."

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

"Break what?"

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

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

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

"You're stripes," Valerie told me.

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

"Smartass."

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

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

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

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

"Well thanks a lot."

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

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

We did end up in her apartment though.

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

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

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

"June first."

Valerie seemed surprised. "You remembered?"

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

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

"Nah, I'm fine."

"Do you not drink?"

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

"You could always spend the night."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I love them all."

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

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

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

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

I had to smile. "Seen it much?"

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

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

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

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

"Hey, look at me," Valerie said.

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

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

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

"Butter or no butter?"

"No butter," I replied.

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

"Then maybe I should be dating her instead."

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

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

"I'll try to remember that."

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

"Any time," she said, sitting down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Next to the club."

"Would you like me to walk you back?"

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

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

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

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

Valerie's eyebrows rose. "Oh?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. "Okay. Good night."

"Good night."

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

 

Chapter 7

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

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

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

"About what?"

"About Valerie."

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

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

"Of?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oof. Bad sign."

I frowned. "Is it?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps I needed therapy.

 

 

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

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

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

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

Name Subject

DarkCrystal61@hotmail.com hi …

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

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

~Val~

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

Subject: Re: hi …

Val,

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

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

Alix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You're mocking me now."

I laughed. "Yeah, just a little."

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

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

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

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

"Do you think we can get together tomorrow?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not a phone person?"

"Nope."

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

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

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

 

Chapter 8

 

"I don't know if I can do this," I whispered to Jade, clapping more or less enthusiastically as someone who'd just auditioned finished their piece and walked off stage.

"Does that mean we can get out of here now?" Jade asked me, her eyes pleading.

I smacked her on the shoulder. "You're not supposed to say that!" I chastised. "I brought you along for moral support, after all. Your job is to keep me pumped up and optimistic."

"Rah rah, go Alix go," Jade muttered. "Now can we get out of here?"

"I hate you." I slumped down in my seat, and focused straight ahead as another hopeful actor took the stage.

Jade frowned down at me, leaning down to whisper in my ear. "I don't know how I let you talk to me into coming to these things. You know how I hate theatre."

The guy on stage sucked big time, and I was grateful. "You hate theatre but you love me, and that's what matters." I clapped as the bad actor left the stage.

"Alix Morris?" someone called from the front row.

I took a deep breath and stood up. This was it. My one and only chance to join the Baldwin Players. Since it was improvisation, I was completely at their mercy. Had it been a different type of audition, I would've walked up on stage and acted out a pair of contrasting monologues, unless it was a cold reading in which case I would simply grab the script and read the lines to the best of my ability. This was a bit harder, but I just figured that my life was a huge improvisation act anyway, so if I looked at it that way I had 20 years of experience under my belt.

Reaching my destination on stage, I took a seat on the stool, and faced the darkened audience. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as I waited for instructions on what to do next.

"Okay, Alix. You're a broken refrigerator that's been abandoned in the middle of a Laundromat. You have five minutes to find an owner. Ready…go."

I felt my body sigh. This was going to be a long audition.

 

Jade was still laughing half an hour later when we walked back to my dorm room. "That was the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life. The part where you tried to climb inside the washer!" She cracked up all over again.

I merely shook my head, and opened the door to my room, allowing Jade inside. "I just hope I got picked."

"Are you kidding? You were the best one up there. It was wicked." She took a seat on my bed, and broke out the pack of cigarettes. "Mind if I have a fag?"

I scrunched up my face. "Only if you stop calling them that." I turned on the laptop and leaned against my desk as it booted up.

Jade lit up the cigarette, exhaling smoke into the air. "When do you find out if you got chosen?"

"Not sure," I replied, sitting down. "We got out of there pretty early. If I'd known I would've made a date with Valerie." I said that more to myself than to Jade, but she heard it none the less.

"I still can't believe she kept you on the phone for five hours. That's excessive for any normal person, but for you it's just mind-boggling." She paused momentarily to blow a ring of smoke. "You weren't having phone sex, were you?" She wrinkled her nose at the thought.

I narrowed my eyebrows as I glanced at her. "Yeah, that's it." I shook my head and signed on to AOL. "Oh hey you never told me about your date last night," I said, maintaining eye contact with the computer screen as I double-clicked on my mailbox. My email listing popped up in front of me.

Name Subject

Dreamer Re: déjà vu

DarkCrystal61@hotmail.com Bored at Pride Factory

 

I bit my lip, trying to decide which one to click on first. Usually I left the best for last when checking my email, but in this case I wasn't sure which was which.

" .…and then the aliens began to probe us anally which I found quite pleasurable…"

My head snapped in Jade's direction as my brows furrowed. "What?"

"Glad to see you were listening," she said dryly. "What were you thinking about now?"

I smiled apologetically. "I was trying to decide whether to read Jessica's email or Valerie's first."

"Oh you're bloody kidding me." She walked over to my desk, and flicked me on the forehead.

"Ow!" I rubbed my forehead with my hand. "You haven't done that in ages."

"Well you hadn't been this idiotic in a while," Jade replied, leaning over my shoulder to look at the screen. "Read Jessica's first."

I looked at the computer screen. "Why?"

"Cause it's the first one there."

Not sure how I felt about her rationale, I clicked on Jessica's email first anyway.

 

Al,

Paris is beautiful! We visited the Eiffel Tower this morning. I'm not sure what we're doing today. Mathew has our guide book. I think we're going to walk around and take pictures of things. I already bought you a bunch of souvenirs that you'll most likely frown upon and wonder why I bought them for you, but oh well!

Mathew says hi. He wants to know if Dominique has asked about him? He really misses Dominique. Ack! Just got hit with a pillow. I better go before someone gets hurt (well, before he gets hurt anyway). I miss you!

Love,

Jessica

"Sounds like they're having a good time," Jade said.

"Yeah," I responded. "They're one of those freak happy couples that were joined as a cause of the pull of the moon or something."

"Are you going to reply first or read Valerie's email?" Jade inquired, voicing my thoughts.

Without really thinking, I hit 'next' and Valerie's email replaced Jessica's.

Alix,

I came in for my after work coffee and decided to step into the cyber café and check my email. I hope your audition went well. I had a lot of fun talking to you on the phone last night. I'm rather proud of myself for keeping you on for that long. It does wonders for my ego, which was shot after playing pool with you the other night. Well, I should go. I have a long day tomorrow. Would it be out of line if I said I missed you today?

~Val~

I couldn't help the smile that seemed to appear whenever I read Valerie's emails… or heard her voice on the phone… or saw her. "She missed me," I said, unable to keep the awe from my voice.

Beside me, Jade sighed. "You're a gonner." She walked over to the window and flicked her cigarette outside. "Now can you listen to my date story?"

"Oh yeah, sorry about that," I said, turning around and bestowing my full attention on my bald-headed friend. "I'm all ears."

Jade nodded, and sat on the floor next to my bed. "He took me to an art museum after dinner, where he spent about an hour staring at a painting of a yellow line crossed with a purple one. He insisted it was bloody brilliant and fantastic." She shrugged. "So I left him there."

My eyebrows rose in surprise. "How'd you get home?"

"Well on my way out I ran into this really cute bloke who offered to drive me home. He was really nice and gave me his mobile number so I could call him sometime. I was thinking I'd call and invite him to the cinema, what do you think?"

I shook my head. "I don't know how you manage to meet so many different guys just by breathing in their direction."

"Pity, isn't it, that even then I can't seem to find one worth keeping?"

I smiled. "Pity indeed. Maybe this new one will be different."

"Perhaps." Jade smiled, and studied me for a second. "Y'know I really do like this new hair style of yours. You look rather girlish but in a cool dyke sort of way."

"I'm not sure how to take that, Jay," I replied, grinning crookedly.

She laughed. "Naw, it looks good." She nodded toward the computer. "Are you writing back to them?"

My attention shifted back to the emails on my computer screen. "Yeah, I guess I should do that."

To Jessica, I wrote a quick note telling her not to buy me dumb things and to have fun and to say hi to Mathew for me. To Valerie, I simply wrote back: I missed you too. I don't know why but it seemed too important a phrase to include among a bunch of miscellaneous meanderings and psycho babble.

Or maybe it was just the only thing I wanted to say.

 

Chapter 9

In my experience, love is simply pain wrapped in a pretty package of red roses and pink hearts. It becomes a series of fantasies dancing on the walls of your mind, replaying again and again at the most inopportune moments of your day when you should be focusing instead on the tediousness of reality. Then, you return to waking life and it hits you that you don't have what you want. And it hurts. Sometimes, it's just a sting. Other times, the pain is so intense that you can't even breathe. And yet, it keeps you going somehow.

I was lying in bed that Wednesday night, staring thoughtfully at a picture of Jessica. It was one I had taken of her without her realizing it. Leaning against the balcony, black hair flowing behind her in the wind, her azure eyes contemplating the distance as though deciding whether or not to take flight. It was my favorite picture; the only one where the camera caught her without her defenses, without barriers. I'd never shown it to anyone, not even Jessica. Perhaps it was a bit foolish of me, but I didn't want anyone to see her as I saw her.

How do you get over loving someone? I wondered, not at all certain that it was possible. How often do you meet a person who can take your breath away with one look? Who can make your heart soar with one smile …

The knock on the door caught me off guard. I hesitated a second before putting the picture away, then yelled, "It's open!" When the door opened, and my visitor walked in, my mouth flew open. "What are you doing here?"

Valerie shut the door behind her and stood in the middle of the room staring at me. "Nice to see you too." She eyed me for a moment and smiled. "That's a nice look for you."

For a moment I wondered if I was lying naked in bed without realizing it. I looked down and found, to my relief, that I was indeed wearing clothing. Since I hadn't expected to leave my room for the rest of the night, I'd changed into a pair of blue and white flannel boxers and a gray tank top. My gaze returned to hers. "Thanks. What are you doing here?"

Still not answering my question, Valerie took a second to look around the room, so I took that moment to study her. Looking beautiful as usual, she was clad in faded blue jeans, a gray Miami University tee shirt, and black leather boots. Her blue eyes ceased their exploration and returned promptly to my own. "The girl I was filling in for decided she could work after all, so I went home," she explained.

I felt suddenly bad for making her stand there, so I responded, "I'm sorry. Please take a seat anywhere." I watched her move to the end of my bed, and sit down. "I wasn't expecting you. I didn't mean to be a jerk about you showing up."

Valerie shrugged. "I should've called."

Something occurred to me and I frowned. "How did you find me? I never told you where I lived."

She looked a bit embarrassed. "I ran into your friend Jade at Whispers earlier, and she gave me directions. I really should've called, I'm sorry. I'll get out of here." She went to stand up, but I leaned forward to stop her.

"I'm glad you came," I said, meaning the words. "I meant it when I said I missed you."

This brought a smile to her face, and my heart skipped a beat. "I lied about that part, but I'm glad someone meant it."

I frowned, and she laughed. "Yeah you better be kidding," I said, feeling relief flow through me. Last thing I needed was to fall for someone else who didn't feel the same way. Quickly, I pushed that last thought from my mind. "So did you have a plan for what you wanted to do, or did you just figure you'd wing it?"

"Well I was just hoping you'd be here," Valerie admitted. "But now that you mention it, there were a couple of things I wanted to do."

"Do share madam."

Valerie grinned at me. "Well, the first would probably be inappropriate at this point in time." She winked. "But, the second was for you to show me around campus, if you're willing. I understand if you're busy."

"Do I look busy?" I asked, motioning around me.

"Does that mean you'll be my tour guide?"

I smiled, meeting her eyes. "Gladly." I swung my legs over the side of the bed. "Just gotta put some clothes on first."

Valerie's eyes traveled up the length of my body, and I felt myself growing warm under her gaze. "Don't do it on my account."

Suddenly, I found myself at a loss for words. For a split second I wondered what she'd do if I pushed her down on the bed and started kissing her. Getting a grip, I made my way to the closet to find a pair of jeans. I debated whether or not to tell her to look away, and then noticed that she averted her eyes of her own accord. I changed quickly, and pretty soon we were walking side by side along the empty sidewalks of Baldwin University.

As we walked, I pointed out all the different buildings, and guessing that she wanted to see the art department, I led us in that direction.

"You never told me how your audition went," Valerie reminded me.

I glanced up at her, both surprised and touched that she'd remembered. "It went well, I think. Tough competition though, so I don't know if I'll get in."

"When do you find out?"

"I don't know. They're supposed to call, but I've been sitting by the phone all day and nothing. I'm not sure if that means that I didn't get in, or that they're just taking a while to decide."

Valerie nodded her head thoughtfully. "Got any more auditions lined up?"

"Not for a few weeks." I nodded to the building straight ahead. "That's the Art Department. Would you like to check it out?"

"I was there earlier getting information," Valerie stated. "I like what I've seen so far."

"I feel like a real estate agent," I said, laughing. "How long have you been on campus?"

Valerie stared straight ahead as she contemplated the question, then looked down at me to answer. "Several hours."

My eyebrows shot up in surprise. "All of that time and you came to visit me now?"

Valerie shrugged her shoulders and looked at her feet. "Well, I didn't know whether I should bother you. It took me a while to decide."

I had to smile. The entire concept of her sitting around for hours trying to decide whether or not to visit me was endearing. "What finally convinced you?"

"I really wanted that tour of the campus," she answered, smiling.

Laughing, I looked up to catch her gaze on my face. My eyes met hers and for a brief moment I was caught in the intensity they radiated. "I'm glad I could be of assistance," I replied, looking away before my heart had a chance to beat its way out of my chest. "Is there anything else you'd like to see?"

I caught the brief smile that crossed her lips. "Oh you mean of the school? No I think we covered everything."

"Does this mean you won't be needing my services anymore?" I teased.

She caught my gaze. "You're flirting again," she pointed out.

"No I'm not," I lied. "What would you like to do now?"

Valerie looked at her watch. "I should probably get going."

Keeping the disappointment from my tone, I said, "I'll walk you to your car." The walk to the visitor's parking lot was far too short for my tastes, and when we approached her Bronco II I silently searched for a reason to get her to stay longer. Coming up with nothing, I reminded myself that I'd be seeing her again the following day and chastised myself for being so clingy. "So where should I meet you tomorrow?" I asked, standing a few feet away as she unlocked the door.

Turning back to me, she considered. "Is there a good pet shop around here?"

"A few," I responded.

"Pick you up at three?" she suggested.

I nodded my assent.

She smiled. "See you tomorrow." And then before I knew it she was driving away and I stood there watching after her until I could no longer see the tail lights in the distance.

 

Chapter 10

The following morning my alarm clock didn't go off. Or else it did go off and I didn't hear it. Or else I heard it but in my sleepy state of consciousness decided that sleep was more important than classes and shut if off without further consideration. My point is that that I overslept.

I was awakened instead by the ringing phone. I reached for it and without opening my eyes, said, "Hello?"

My voice was mirrored at the other end of the line. "Hey. Dinner at mom's tonight, don't forget."

This time my eyes did open, and I ventured a gaze at the time. It was two. Silently I cursed myself. I'd missed two theater classes and Valerie would be there in an hour. Calculating the amount of time remaining with the amount of time it would take me to get off the phone with Rachel and take a shower, I decided I'd have time. I sat up and yawned, then returned my attention to my sister, "Okay. What were you saying?"

Rachel audibly sighed. "Dinner at mom's tonight. She's been leaving messages with your roommate all week."

I walked over to my desk and looked around. A second later I spotted the message tacked to my bulletin board. Your mom called. Dinner on Thursday at 6. It was circled in red and underlined in blue. How the hell had I missed that? "I didn't get the message," I said.

"Well mom's expecting you so you better be there. You know how sensitive she is about these things."

"But I made other plans," I whined.

"Your problem, not mine. See you at dinner. Bye."

The phone went dead in my ear, and I clicked the 'end' button. Then tapped the receiver against my forehead chanting, "Think, think, think." It was too bad I couldn't lie to her. I could be an Academy Award winning actress some day and I will still not be able to pull off a lie to my mom. I dialed her number, and crossed my fingers, hoping for the best. "Hi mom," I said, when I heard her pick up.

"Hi Alix. Will you pick up some milk on your way over here. I totally forgot this morning when I went shopping."

"Sure. Um, mom. I have a bit of a dilemma."

"What's wrong?" I could hear the alarm in her tone. "Is it drugs?"

I shook my head as though to clear it. "No, nothing like that. It's just that I didn't get your messages and I made other plans today."

"You're missing my dinner?" Disappointment.

Ouch. I couldn't bear that tone. "No.. it's just---"

"What are your plans?" she interrupted.

"I'm helping my … friend … buy a puppy." Why did I pause like that?

"That's nice of you, dear. Well go with your friend and then come to dinner. It won't take you all day to do that." She sounded as though there was something else she wanted to add so I remained silent. "Is this friend… a girl friend?"

My heart stopped beating for a moment. This wasn't a subject we ever discussed. "Um. Not exactly. I mean, she's a girl. She's not my girlfriend. I mean I'm not dating her. I mean, I am, but it's not like---"

"Bring her to dinner."

My jaw fell open. "What?"

"Rachel's bringing Jonathan, so feel free to bring…?"

"Valerie."

"Valerie," she finished. "It was about time you started dating."

I was speechless.

"See you at six, okay honey?"

"Okay, mom."

"Don't forget the milk. I love you."

"Love you too. Bye." I hung up, and leaned against my desk for support. That was an unexpected turn of events.

 

It's amazing what cute animals will do to people. All around the pet store there was a chorus of ooo's and aww's. I looked around, watching as people turned to mush, then returned my gaze to Valerie who was holding a Pug. She looked so cute standing there with the puppy in her arms that I wished I could take her home with me.

"Do you think we make a cute couple?" Valerie asked suddenly.

It took me a moment to realize she was referring to the dog. "Uh, yeah. Adorable. Is it the one?"

Valerie held the puppy in front of her and looked into its eyes. "I think I'm in love," she said, and hugged the dog to her chest, kissing it on the head.

I had to smile. "You're going to be very happy together."

Valerie grinned, and headed to the counter to purchase the new addition to her household. She also had to buy dog food and play toys and a bunch of other things that pretty much cost her a small fortune. Later she revealed to me that she'd been saving for the special occasion, so I was flattered that she'd invited me along.

We sat in the car, Valerie playing with the puppy on her lap. "She's so cute."

I studied her silently for a moment. "What are you going to name her?"

"Alix."

I looked at her in surprise, and she smiled.

"Kidding." She looked at the dog who was now licking her hand. "I think I'll name her Loki."

"Loki?" I must have looked puzzled, because she laughed.

"From Dogma."

"Oh I haven't seen that yet." I stared down at the dog, and smiled. I'd always thought pugs were ugly, but little Loki was rather cute. I then glanced at my watch. It was a quarter past four, and I still hadn't asked Valerie to dinner. Wasn't meeting the folks a big step in a relationship? Were we in a relationship? Paranoia was becoming a constant presence in my life. "Are you hungry?" I found myself asking.

"A little," Valerie responded, her gaze fixed on the puppy.

I bit my lip, trying to come up with a casual way of asking her. "I'm having dinner at my mom's at six and she said to invite you." I held my breath as I waited for her to respond.

This time she looked up. "You want me to have dinner with you and your mom?" she asked.

I couldn't read her face and the tone of her voice revealed nothing. "My sister and her boyfriend will be there too."

She studied me silently, my heart beating faster and faster with each second that her eyes held my gaze. "I'd love to," she responded.

"Good." I felt a momentary sense of relief, followed by a new wave of paranoia. What if my mom hated her? What if Valerie hated my mom? What if a huge fight erupted?

"Are you okay? I don't have to go if you don't want me to."

Blue eyes were staring at me with concern. I smiled to put her at ease. "I want you to come." And I did. In spite of my worries.

"Do you mind if we stop at my apartment first? I need to get Loki set up."

I grinned. "I'll take the dog up the stairs with me … you can take the elevator with the stuff."

Valerie arched an eyebrow. "You're so generous."

"I try," I responded reaching for the dog. "Come here Loki. You and I are going to be stair buddies. You don't like the elevator either, do you?" Loki barked in reply. I smiled, giving Valerie a satisfied look. "See?"

Valerie sighed, throwing the car in reverse. "Of all the girls in the world, I pick the one who's afraid of elevators."

"Hey at least you got a choice. I got stuck with the one who's afraid of feathers." Loki barked. "Yep, you're stuck with her too, babe," I said to the puppy, petting her fur. "And you have to live with her." I caught Valerie's smile, but didn't say anything. Instead I let her concentrate on driving while I played with the dog on my lap. In that moment I felt so at peace. Definitely happier than I'd felt in a long time. I glanced between Valerie and Loki for a moment, smiling to myself. I felt at home.

 

 

When we reached Valerie's apartment building, I noticed for the first time that Loki wasn't potty trained. And if she was, she'd confused my jeans with the toilet. "Um, Valerie," I called, not wanting to get out of the car.

Valerie was already unpacking the stuff from the back. "Yeah?"

"We've got a situation here," I replied.

She appeared at my side a moment later and then started laughing. "I think you got her a little too excited."

"I have that effect on women." I smiled down at Loki, then picked her up so I could carry her out of the car.

Valerie hung a bag from one of my fingers. "There, you can carry that."

"Yeah, thanks," I replied, glaring in mock annoyance. I waited for her to grab the rest of the stuff, and together we walked into the building. "You know, you could make two trips." She looked like she was about to fall over from all the stuff she was carrying.

"No thanks. One is enough."

"Your mommy is a freak," I whispered to Loki, loud enough so Valerie could hear.

"I heard that."

"But there's nothing wrong with her hearing," I added.

Valerie and I split up when we reached the elevator and Loki and I took the stairs to the fourth floor. "One of these days," I informed the dog as we walked toward Valerie's apartment door, "that elevator is going to get stuck, and you and I are going to get to laugh at your mommy together."

"If my dog ends up being terrified of elevators, I'm coming after you," Valerie announced, unlocking the door and allowing us to pass through first.

"Hey, I'm the one she marked as her territory. Loki and I have bonded. What we have is special and there's nothing you can do about it."

Valerie closed the door and laughed. "We'll see about that." She walked over and took Loki, then grinned at me. "Strip."

"I guess you're not much into foreplay," I joked.

She smiled. "If we hurry I can get your jeans washed for you before we have to get to your mom's."

Take off my pants, I thought. I can do that. She's a girl. I'm a girl. I looked into her eyes and felt the world disappear around me. Yeah… that's the problem. I took a deep breath. "Well if I have to take my pants off, then so do you."

She stared at me in surprise. "What?"

"Yeah," I insisted, wondering if she'd actually go for it, "if I have to parade around your apartment in my underwear, then so should you."

"They're your pants."

"It's your dog."

She narrowed her eyes at me, then relented. "Fine. Give me your pants though, 'cause I have to go to the basement to do it and I'm not walking down there in my underwear."

I hesitated a moment but obeyed, relieved that I'd thought to shave that day. I felt a draft on my bare legs and felt extremely self-conscious under the intensity of her gaze. I handed her my jeans and tried not to blush. "You will stop looking at me like that," I told her.

Valerie smiled. "Sorry, can't help it." A couple of minutes later she walked out with my jeans, and I was left standing in the middle of her living room wearing nothing but underwear and a Nine Inch Nails tee shirt. I felt like a big dork.

Loki had ventured down the hallway so I decided to follow her. I found the dog in Valerie's bedroom and I stood in the doorway looking around. Like the rest of the apartment, the room was perfectly neat. There were a few posters on the walls: Labyrinth, Save Ferris, Dance Hall Crashers, and No Doubt. A full sized bed rested against the wall with a night stand beside it.

I looked down and noticed that Loki had left a little present for Valerie on the carpet. I laughed to myself and then hurried back to the living room as I heard the door opening.

Valerie smiled as she entered. "You should have your pants back in an hour or so."

"Mm. Thank you. Pants off."

"I love a dominant woman," Valerie joked. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, then went ahead and took off her jeans.

I don't know why, but I blushed. I tried to keep my eyes from wandering, but I couldn't help it, which in turn made me blush more. I wished suddenly that Loki had aimed for my shirt as well, then smacked myself mentally for the thought.

"Happy now?"

You have no idea, I thought, but simply smiled. "Yep. Oh, careful where you step in your room."

She frowned. "Why?"

I pointed down the hall, and she walked over there slowly as though afraid to confirm her suspicions. She stopped at the doorway to her bedroom and shook her head. "Guess we'll have to potty train her some how."

We? "Yeah or else you'll need to replace your carpet quite frequently," I replied, still wondering what she'd meant by 'we'.

 

Chapter 11

 

The drive to my mom's house was a relatively quiet one. I was too busy worrying about introducing Valerie to my mom and sister to come up with conversation topics, and Valerie was probably worrying about leaving Loki alone in her apartment. I almost suggested that we call the whole thing off, but I didn't. I'm not exactly sure why, but I'm pretty sure that it had something to do with the fact that in spite of my fear, I was extremely curious to see how my family would take to Valerie.

"Are you nervous?" I asked Valerie as the sign reading 'Welcome to Baldwin City' rolled into view.

Valerie threw me a sideways glance and grinned. "Should I be?"

I shrugged, looking out of the passenger side window. "Truthfully I don't know what to expect. I've never brought a girl home so-to-speak."

"You've kept your other girlfriends well hidden?"

The question caught me off-guard though it didn't really surprise me. "I've never had a girlfriend," I responded quietly. I wasn't exactly embarrassed, but I was a bit worried about what Valerie would think.

"None at all?" Valerie asked, sounding surprised but not in the least bit judgmental.

"Nope."

"Boyfriend?"

"One, but it only lasted a couple of weeks."

"So you've never ….. er …."

I looked at her. "Had sex? No."

"Hmm."

I studied her silently for a long moment, hoping for further commentary. When none was forthcoming, I said, "What is 'hmm'?"

She looked at me and smiled. "Sorry I'm just surprised."

"Why, do I look like a slut or something?" I was trying to keep the mood light because I knew we were getting close to my mom's house and this was bound to be a conversation that lasted a while. I started giving instructions to my mom's house as we talked.

Valerie laughed. "Yep. A big whore, that's what I thought you were."

"Sorry to disappoint."

"I'll deal with it somehow."

I'm not sure why I asked the next question. Perhaps because I was hoping zero would be her answer, though I seriously doubted it. "So what's your lucky number?"

I'm not sure if I caught her by surprise or not, but she took a few seconds before responding. She glanced at me quickly then answered, "Six."

Six. "All women?" I asked out of morbid curiosity.

Valerie nodded.

"Hmm."

She looked at me, frowning slightly. "What is 'hmm'?"

I shrugged. "Nothing. So were you in love with any of them?" I asked, not sure where I was going with this line of questioning but not able to stop myself from asking.

"Does this mean I get to question you on the way back?" Valerie asked instead of responding.

"Yep. You may fire away."

She nodded, then answered. "I've never been in love."

As my street rolled into view, I focused on giving Valerie directions to the house. I wasn't sure why at the time, but her answer filled me with relief.

Valerie pulled into my mom's driveway and I noticed that my sister's car was already there. Rachel was always on time for everything. I, on the other hand, preferred to be fashionably late.

"Is there anything I should know before we go in?" Valerie asked, turning off the ignition and sitting back against the seat.

"My sister's a bitch and her boyfriend's a jerk but my mom's pretty cool when she wants to be." I smiled and touched her arm. "Don't worry about it."

We were greeted at the front door by my evil twin, whose gaze never left Valerie. It was then that I remembered that Valerie didn't know I was a twin. I looked over to study her expression, but was surprised to see no change. Usually people gaped, staring back and forth between us as though trying to make sure it wasn't their imagination. My sister was dressed in a short skirt that left little to the imagination and a black V-neck shirt. I thought she looked like a whore.

"So this is Valerie," Rachel said, more to herself than to us, and stretched out her hand. "I'm Rachel."

Valerie shook my sister's hand and we stepped inside the house. Rachel led the way to the living room, and I caught Valerie checking her out. I smacked Valerie's arm without thinking. Then the implication of what I'd just done hit me like a ton of bricks. I'd acted like a jealous girlfriend. Mentally I shook myself. If Valerie wanted to check out my sister then she was more than welcome to. At least, that's what I told myself. I never said I had to believe it.

Jonathan Green, my future brother-in-law the way things were going, stood up to greet us. He had a fake smile plastered on his face. The same smile he always used when he had to be nice to people he didn't particularly like. Needless to say, Jon and I weren't particularly best friends. "Hello Alix, who's your friend?"

"Valerie, meet Satan. Satan, this is Valerie."

Jonathan glared at me for a split second, then his fake smile reappeared as he stepped forward to shake hands with Valerie. "Jonathan Green, nice to meet you."

"Where's mom?" I asked.

"She stepped out to buy milk," Rachel responded.

"I knew I'd forgotten something," I muttered. "Shit."

"Don't curse, Alix," Jonathan instructed.

"I see you have yet to take that stick out of your ass," I responded.

"Only your kind of people enjoy that sort of thing," he answered.

I was about to lunge at him because God knew he deserved a good beating, but I decided to be the better man. Plus I didn't feel like getting my ass kicked in front of Valerie. I took a deep breath. "Would you like to see my room?" I asked Valerie.

She nodded, and I led her up to the second floor. My room was just how I'd left it, if only a little neater. I hadn't felt like taking down any of the posters when I'd moved out, so the walls and ceiling were still covered with posters of heavy rock and metal bands—mostly Aerosmith of course. The walls were black in the small spaces between posters, and so were the blinds. The bed sheets were black, my desk was black, my closet was black. To make the long story short, my entire room was black. I loved this room.

I dropped myself on the bed the second we stepped inside. "Sorry, he just gets me so angry I had to get out of there before I punched him."

"Guess he's not a big supporter, huh?" Valerie asked, leaning against my desk.

I turned over so that I was lying on my side with my head propped on one hand. "No. He comes from a very religious, very conservative family. We put up with each other cause we have no other choice. He's probably going to marry my sister." I smiled apologetically. "Sorry you had to see that."

"I've seen worse," she responded with a smile.

There was a knock on the door and I quickly shouted, "Come in." It was my mom, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt. It always amazed me the way she looked so much younger than she was.

She greeted Valerie with a smile and if that wasn't enough, she even hugged her. I tried to keep my jaw from dropping. "It's nice that you could join us, Valerie," my mom told her. She looked at me for the first time. "Stand up, let me see your hair."

I'm not sure why I had to stand up for her to see my hair, but I did so anyway and she pulled me in for a big hug. It was then that I grew convinced that my mother had been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by a pod. Then I remembered that she'd started some woman empowerment classes and I figured that had something to do with it.

"I love the haircut," my mom informed me as she finally let me go. "Leave it to Jessica to give you a makeover."

I wasn't entirely sure how to take that comment, so I just let it go. "Thanks."

"Are you girls hiding from Jonathan?"

"Yeah, he's being his usual lovable self."

"Come back downstairs. He won't say anything with me around." My mom led the way, and we followed her back downstairs. "Did you bring the milk?" she asked, her tone revealing that she already knew the answer.

"I brought it in spirit," I responded.

Rachel and Jonathan were talking in the living room. I'm not sure what their topic of conversation was, but it most likely involved computers. They were both Computer Science majors. In other words, they were both big nerds. My sister got the logic/mathematical genes and I got the artistic ones. It was a fair deal, I thought.

"So how long have you two been together?" my mom asked Valerie, as she proceeded to work on fixing dinner. "Alix never tells me anything."

Valerie glanced at me questioningly and I shrugged. "Well we're not exactly together," she responded.

I felt my heart sink a little, even though I knew it was true. "We just met last week," I added as though that explained everything. I kept wondering how many dates we'd have to go on before we'd qualify as a 'couple'. "Do you want any help, mom?"

"No need to burn the kitchen, darling." She smiled at me sweetly, then regarded Valerie, and pointed at me with a wooden spoon. "Can't cook for her life."

"Hey I cook great spasghetti," I protested.

"Spasghetti?" Valerie asked with a smile.

"It's my own creation," I explained. "And I can bake."

My mom nodded. "That's true. She bakes great."

"Guess I'll cook the dinners and you can take care of dessert," Valerie said.

Had I been drinking something, that would've been my cue to choke or spit. I glanced quickly at Valerie then at my mom to catch her reaction. My mom was smiling to herself. I breathed a sigh of relief. Thankfully, my sister and her demon-spawn chose that moment to join us.

"That smells great, Mrs. Morris," Jonathan said.

I rolled my eyes. I'd never seen anyone try so hard to suck up to someone for no apparent reason. Little did he know that my mom didn't particularly like him. She just pretended, like he pretended to like me whenever she was around. God forbid he show his horns around my mother.

"Thank you Jonathan."

Halo firmly in place, Jonathan smiled at me. "So Alix, how's school?"

It was uncanny how two-faced a person could be. "Well I haven't had much time to focus on my schoolwork, Jonathan. I've been too busy molesting little girls and sleeping with animals."

Valerie started coughing to hide the fact that she was laughing. My mom gave me one of her warning looks. Rachel simply scowled at me.

Jonathan continued to smile. "So Valerie, do you go to Baldwin too?"

"Ah, no I go to Miami."

Jonathan leaned against the kitchen counter so he could get a better look at Valerie. "Really. What are you studying?"

"Visual Arts."

"Two starving artists, how nice," Rachel commented. "You two are meant for each other."

"Rachel," my mother warned. "You and Jonathan go set the table."

I was too shocked to comment. My sister had never been nice to me but she had always been nice to my friends. "Sorry about that," I apologized to Valerie.

Valerie shrugged. "I kind of think she's right. The part about you and me being meant for each other. I have no intention of starving."

I smiled at her and any anger I might have felt toward Jonathan or my sister completely dissipated as I stared into her eyes. "I love how you always know exactly what to say to make me feel better."

"It's a gift," Valerie responded

I almost leaned in to kiss her right then and there, but I heard my mom cough.

"You know I’m still here," she said.

 

 

A few hours later, Valerie pulled the Bronco II into the nearest available spot in the parking lot near my dorm. On the ride back from my house, Valerie had bombarded me with questions ranging from what color underwear I was wearing (black, if you must know) to which was my favorite sport (basketball, but only because Jessica played it).

Turning off the ignition, Valerie regarded me curiously. "I have one more question," she said.

I turned so I could devote my entire attention to her. "I'll take Nosy Women for 500, Alex."

Valerie grinned, then turned a bit serious. "Have you ever been in love?"

I was taken aback by the question, and for a moment I couldn't even think. When my brain returned to its upright position, I bit my lip and looked anywhere but her face. "Yes I have…"

I heard her sigh quietly. Then, "Are you still?"

I met her eyes at that moment and felt my entire world flip upside down. Was I still in love with Jessica? When had I not been in love with her? I couldn't even remember. If I said yes, would Valerie never want to see me again? If I said no, would I be leading her on? It was a complicated question, yet she was expecting me to answer right away. Didn't she know I never had my feelings in order? "I don't know what I feel anymore," I responded, and knew without a doubt that it was the absolute truth.

Valerie nodded thoughtfully. "I had a lot of fun today," she said.

I frowned briefly at the abrupt change of topic, but then welcomed it. "Have you not come up with anything more clever to say by now?"

"Guess not," she responded with a smile. "I'm an artist not a writer."

"Well, I had a lot of fun too. I bet you're anxious to get home to Loki."

Valerie nodded. "I am, actually."

I nodded, taking that as my cue to get out of the car. "Thanks for coming to dinner at my mom's. I really appreciate you doing that," I said, not really wanting to part ways.

"You're welcome."

I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to kiss her goodnight or what, so I waited a couple of seconds for her to make the first move. When she didn't, I took that as a sign, and opened the car door. I wanted to ask when I'd see her again, but I was afraid I'd sound too pushy so I refrained myself. If I were a mind reader, my life would've been a lot simpler. "Say hi to Loki for me," I said, then followed it quickly with, "Good night." I got out and shut the car door before Valerie had much of a chance to respond, then waved as I started down the sidewalk toward my building.

 

Chapter 12

"I'm alone … yeah I don't know if I can face the night … I'm in tears… and the crying that I do is for youuuuuuuuuuu…." I sang miserably while staring up at the ceiling for no other reason than I didn't want to get out of bed.

"Alix," Nicole called, her tone not attempting to mask her annoyance, "if I have to hear that song one more time, I will shove the CD so far up your nose …"

Sighing, I turned over and shut Aerosmith off. "I'm having an emotional crisis."

"When are you not?"

"I like Valerie," I said to no one in particular. "I really like Valerie."

"But…?"

I frowned, shaking my head. "That's the thing, there is no but. I mean, I keep thinking there should be but there isn't. And it's strange because it doesn't feel like anything I've ever felt before. With Jessica I was mostly just too busy hiding my feelings, monitoring every look, every word. I was so busy worrying about her getting freaked out that I didn't get a chance to really feel anything. But it's different with Valerie …"

"So what's your crisis?"

"I'm starting to question my feelings for Jessica," I said, knowing it was true yet completely shocked to hear the words fly out of my mouth. I sat up and faced Nicole who was staring at me expectantly. "What if I was never really in love with her? What if I just told myself that I was because I knew she was safe? Or what if, I was at one point and then I just decided to hide behind the idea of being in love with her because I didn't want to deal with my own insecurities?"

Nicole sighed, leaning back against her chair. "Alix, I could've told you this a long time ago. You need to let the Jessica thing go already. You're going to lose Valerie if you don't."

I frowned at the idea of losing Valerie. I'd only just met her but suddenly the idea of not having her in my life seemed terrifying. "I'm gonna go see her," I decided, rising to my feet.

Nicole arched an eyebrow. "Don't you have class in twenty minutes?"

"Some thing are just more important," I responded, grabbing my keys from the desk. "Thanks for listening, Nicole."

"Like I had a choice."

I grinned and left the room. I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to say when I got to her apartment, but I'd think of something.

 

 

Half an hour later I was standing in front of her apartment door wondering what the hell I was doing there. I half expected her to open the door and find me standing there looking clueless. Then the possibility of her not even being home struck me and I almost hoped that was the case.

Still clueless yet brave, I finally knocked. When nothing happened, I knocked again.

She wasn't home.

I stood there staring at the number on her door as though willing it to change into an apartment in which Valerie was home. That didn't work very well. I'd always seen in movies how there always seemed to be a spare key hidden above the doorframe, so out of sheer curiosity I reached up to check. I found dust but no key.

Not exactly sure what to do next, I ended up sitting down against the door. I decided that I'd wait for a short while and if Valerie didn't show up then I'd take it as a sign and leave. But somewhere between me waiting and Valerie showing up, I somehow fell asleep. All I know is that one minute I was sitting there staring at the wall in front of me and the next, I was waking up in a strange room.

"Long night?" Valerie asked.

I blinked until my eyes focused on my surroundings. I was lying on Valerie's bed and she was sitting next to me watching TV on mute with the closed captioning on. I couldn't decide if I was more exhausted or more embarrassed. "How did I get in here?"

"I dragged you across the carpet."

For a moment I thought she was serious until I caught the smirk on her face. I sat up running a hand through my hair.

"Actually I carried you," she said.

I glanced at her in surprise.

"Good thing I work out," she joked.

"Why didn't you wake me up?" I asked, still not fully awake. I kept thinking I was dreaming because the situation seemed so unreal.

"Hey I tried, but have you ever tried waking you up? It's no easy task. Carrying you in here was the easy way out."

I laughed. "I didn't mean to fall asleep on your doorstep."

She shrugged dismissively. "Don't worry about it. It happens all the time. Girls fall asleep at my doorstep almost every day."

"Yeah I'm sure this is true in the fantasyland in your head," I teased.

"Ouch." Valerie feigned pain to her heart, then turned off the TV and regarded me curiously. "So now that you're conscious more or less, what can I do for you?"

I tried to remember if I'd actually come up with anything remotely intelligent before I'd zonked out from boredom, but nothing came to mind. So I decided to wing it. "Well, remember when you asked me last night if I was in love still and I said I didn't know how I felt?" She nodded, so I continued. "Well, I came to tell you that I know for sure that I'm not … in love still." It seemed like such a silly reason to drive all the way over there and then choose to wait outside for her to come home, but it was important to me.

"So what are you?" Valerie asked carefully.

I had no idea. "Thirsty," was what I answered and she smiled offering me her hand.

"Well you've come to the right place."

I let her help me up and then followed her out of the room. Loki met me in the hallway and I picked her up. "Miss me?" I asked the dog, who in turn licked my cheek. I headed toward the kitchen. "You know, you could've opened the door for me," I informed the puppy. "Where are your manners?" I glanced up to find Valerie looking at me curiously. She stepped forward and offered me a can of Dr Pepper in exchange for the dog. It was a fair deal, so I traded. "Sweet ambrosia," I sighed, taking a sip of soda.

"Pardon?"

"Food of the gods," I replied. "If I were a goddess, Dr Pepper would be my ambrosia."

"And you'd be the goddess of what exactly?" Valerie put Loki back on the floor and leaned against the kitchen counter watching me with interest.

I thought quickly. "Well I'd be the goddess of Dr Pepper. My name would be Pepperite. Like Aphrodite, with a kick."

Valerie smiled. She paused for a moment, then asked, "So what made you realize you weren't in love any more?"

Full circle and back to square one. I sighed quietly, then looked up to meet her gaze. "It just sort of … dawned on me." I bit my lip and looked down at the can in my hand. "Actually, my feelings for you sort of help put some things in perspective." I sort of mumbled that last part, but Valerie heard it anyway.

Sounding surprised, she asked, "What are your feelings for me?"

I wasn't used to talking about my feelings to other people. It was easier for me to hide everything because it's what I'd always had to do. So her question threw me off. It didn't surprise me; on the contrary, I'd been expecting it. But I had no idea how to answer it. So in the end, I offered her the truth, "I don't know." Knowing that wasn't enough, I added, "But I've never not known how I felt exactly. I mean, I'm never sure about most things, but I thought I at least knew how I felt about …" I stopped to look at her, not sure if I should say her name.

"Jessica?" Valerie guessed.

It was my turn to sound surprised. "How'd you know?"

She shrugged. "Call it a hunch."

I took a deep breath, not sure of what my point was or if I even had one. "I guess, even though I am generally unsure about everything I thought my feelings for Jessica were the one thing I knew for sure. And then you came along and all of a sudden I've started to question my old feelings … and I'd never done that before." I stopped, not quite certain that I'd made any sense whatsoever but hoping for the best. I'm not exactly sure what I thought Valerie would say … but what she did was unexpected.

It happened so suddenly that I don't even remember how it started, but suddenly her lips were on mine and she was kissing me so gently I never wanted to pull away. I felt her arms tighten around my waist and her body press slowly against mine. My body responded in ways I'd never imagined were possible and I wanted nothing more than to remain in her arms forever.

I'm not sure how long we stood there, but eventually Valerie pulled away. Around me the world spun. I have no idea how I managed to stay on my feet.

"I… umm…wow…" Those were Valerie's first words.

"Umm… yeah…" Were mine.

We stood there looking awkwardly at one another. And then we moved to the couch.

 

Chapter 13

The first thing my eyes focused on the following morning was on a tack on the wall. I remember because I stared it at it for a very long time, wondering why I had never seen it before. The second thing I noticed was that my bed seemed a lot softer than usual. The third thing I noticed was that I wasn't alone, at which point my mind rose to full consciousness and I blinked a few times to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

I wasn't.

I replayed the events of the previous night over in my mind and my face broke into a slow smile. Biting my lip, I rolled over to face a still-sleeping Valerie. Loose strands of blonde hair fell haphazardly across her face and I struggled to keep myself from clearing them away. Instead, I pressed my cheek to the pillow and proceeded to study her quietly.

It's so easy to look at another person while they're sleeping. While their eyes are closed and their minds unaware that you are studying every feature of their face, attempting to memorize it so that when you avoid their eyes later on in the day you can at least remember what they look like. I was sure that if I were told to close my eyes, I could've drawn Valerie's face to picture-perfect precision. It was a shame, however, that I couldn't see her eyes.

While Jessica's had been dark blue, a blue that was almost black in coloring, Valerie's were lighter, with little specs of turquoise in the mix. They were a nice contrast to her light skin, which wasn't pale exactly, but not dark either.

Her eyes suddenly blinked open and I knew I'd been caught staring. Valerie didn't seem to mind and she smiled as her eyes met mine. "Morning," she whispered.

I grinned back. "Morning."

"Guess it wasn't that difficult to get you into bed," she teased.

I arched an eyebrow and pulled the covers off both our fully-clad bodies. "Literally no….metaphorically speaking, however, you're going to have to try a lot harder than that."

Valerie smiled and leaned forward to kiss me briefly. Then she said, "Details details." She offered me her hand. "Can I interest you in some breakfast?"

I let her drag me off the bed. "Only if you make it."

"Deal. I don't want my apartment blowing up today." She laughed at the glare I sent her way and led the way to the kitchen. Once at her destination, she leaned against the counter. "What would you like?"

"What, don't I get a menu or something?" I joked, moving over to the couch in the living room. Loki appeared a second later and jumped onto my lap. "Make that two menus."

In the kitchen, Valerie opened the refrigerator. "I've got eggs, bagels, English muffins, and bacon."

My eyebrows shot upward in surprise. "Wow, you're really into breakfast huh?"

"It's the most important meal of the day," she responded.

"That's what they tell me," I replied. I usually found midnight snacks to be the most important meals of the day. But what did I know? I stood up, grabbing Loki as I went and joined Valerie in the kitchen. "Tell you what, you take care of the frying and I'll deal with the no-brain appliances."

Valerie stared at me curiously. "What are we making?"

"Everything!" I answered, putting Loki on the ground. "I'm starving."

 

 

A couple of hours later I stumbled through my dorm room to find a bunch of messages on my desk. The one night I'm not there and everybody decides to call me. Figures.

"Long night?" Nicole asked from her trademark spot on the bed. She was watching TV for a change. She lowered the volume. "I wasn't sure whether to be worried or elated. Guess I'll go with the latter."

I rolled my eyes. "Nothing happened, Nicole." I paused for a moment, then allowed myself a grin. "Well nothing much."

"Ah-huh. If nothing happened then how come you're wandering in here at one in the afternoon?"

Slight knock on the door, followed by, "You just got in now?" Jade asked incredulously, stepping inside the room. "From nun to hooker. That was a fast transition."

I frowned at Jade. "What are you doing here?"

"I was calling you all night," Jade answered, lighting up a cigarette. "So I thought I'd show up today and see how things were going. By the looks of it you were pretty busy last night, eh?" She nudged me and winked, crossing the room to sit on my bed. "Please tell all."

"Was it as good as you'd imagined, or were you disappointed?" Nicole wondered, leaning forward in her bed.

I felt as though there was a giant spotlight focused directly on me. Shaking my head, I closed the door and took a seat at my desk. "Nothing happened," I repeated.

"Nothing at all?" Jade pressed.

I bit my lip. "Well…"

"Spill it, woman!" Nicole insisted.

I decided I needed to get myself a set of new friends. The kind that minded their own businesses and didn't press me for personal information. Ha, right! Resigned to the inevitable, I finally answered. "Well, we kissed for a while."

"And…?" Jade.

I frowned. "And then we watched TV for a while."

"And…?" Nicole.

I sighed. "Well then it got kind of late and Valerie suggested I sleep over. So I said sure."

Jade walked to the window to flick her cigarette. "That's it?" she asked, turning to face me.

"Well yeah." I smiled. "I wasn't going to have sex with her."

"Why bloody not?"

I shrugged. "Well for starters, I just met her. I'm not ready to rush into anything. And besides…" I trailed off, biting my lip.

"And besides…?"

Sighing, I walked over to my bed and lied down. "It would be my first time, and I'm kind of nervous about the entire concept."

Jade shook her head and flicked the cigarette out the window. "Maybe we'll just go ahead and get you that lesbian porn."

Nicole rose to her feet. "I see that no more juicy information will come out of this conversation, so if you girls will excuse me, I'm going to the student center to grab lunch." She grabbed her purse and keys and headed out the door.

Jade watched the door slam closed and laughed. "Wow that lesbian porn thing really gets her outta here."

"I'd say."

Jade sat down at the edge of my bed and regarded me curiously, waiting for me to say something.

I sighed. "It's not the mechanics of it. I know what to do." I tried to pinpoint the exact source of my worries but couldn't. "I think it's more of an emotional fear."

"Are you worried your heart will overload?" Jade grinned.

Shrugging, I sighed. "Maybe." I let my head fall back on my pillow. "What if I'm no good? What if I'm so bad that all her feelings for me instantly evaporate at my utter incompetence in the art of lovemaking."

Jade cracked up. "You're a nut! That's ridiculous!"

"I don’t think so. I mean, what if I'm like really bad?" I sighed. "I wish there was a way to test my abilities."

"I'm not sleeping with you if that's what you're thinking."

I nudged Jade in the leg with my foot. "Very funny. I was thinking more along the lines of those Seventeen Magazine quizzes."

Jade laughed. "Oh right. 'Lesbian Sex: Do you have what it takes?' I can just see it now."

She was right. It did sound pretty ridiculous and not at all helpful, but I still wondered if there was some way, outside of the traditional mode of information, for finding out. "Hmm. What about a psychic?"

"You wanna sleep with a psychic?"

"No! I mean … go to a psychic. To ask them."

Jade raised both eyebrows and stared at me. "I truly hope you're not serious about any of this." She frowned. "Oh gods, you are."

"Well no." Not entirely, anyway. "Guess I'll just have to find out when the time comes."

Jade was quiet for a moment. "Do you think you'll sleep with her?"

My gaze snapped up to look at her. I was silent, then I looked a way and sighed. "I hope so. I've never wanted anyone so badly in my life."

"Jessica?"

I met her gaze and held it, shaking my head. "Not even Jessica."

 

 

I spent the rest of the day at the student center trying to catch up on some reading for my World Literature course. I'd been so busy balancing my heart between Jessica and Valerie that I'd totally forgotten about my schoolwork. I'd already missed a couple of days of classes in the name of love. Well .. . maybe not love. Obsession and infatuation was more like it. But those were the roots of love, no?

I managed to get through half of Fae Myenne Ng's Bone before my brain stopped accepting intellectual stimuli. On the way back to my room I gave myself a mental pat on the back for having been productive. I was at least ahead in one of my classes. One down, four to go, I thought.

My room was empty when I stepped inside, but there was a new message waiting on the answering machine. Pushing the door closed with my foot, I managed to press 'play' simultaneously. I'm not sure why I did that … maybe just to see if I could. Anyway …

"You have one new message." There was a short beep, and then Roxanne's voice filled the room. "Hey Al, just wondering what you were up to since I hadn't heard from you since the wedding. You didn't run off and join a convent or something crazy like that, did ya? Well anyway. Call me. Maybe we can chill."

Hanging out with Roxanne hadn't been on my list of things to do that evening but I acknowledged the fact that I had no plans with Valerie and thus had nothing else to do. Besides, I wanted Roxanne's take on the matters of my heart. So without further delay, I grabbed the phone from its base and dialed Roxanne's number.

"Peek-a-mon," came the response on the other line a couple of rings later.

I smiled into the receiver. "Hi Alisha."

"Peek-a—" Alisha was cut off mid-babble only to be replaced a second later by Roxanne's, "Hello?"

"Just got your message."

"Oh hi, Alix. Hold on." I heard the distinct sounds of a phone getting dropped on a counter, soon to be followed by Roxanne's voice in the distance. "Alisha, c'mon baby let's watch some TV…"

I waited patiently for Roxanne to return, busying myself by staring at the poster of Steven Tyler on my ceiling. It was the only poster I'd bothered to remove from my room. It was my favorite and it would continue to reside above my bed until my dying day.

"Still there?" Roxanne breathed a couple of minutes later.

"Yeah. How's Alisha?" The entire concept of one of my best friends having a four-year-old child was mind-boggling. I thought with time it would become less shocking, but it only got worse. It served an up-lifting reminder that we were getting old. Jessica was married, Roxanne had a kid … Guess both of those were out of the question for me. I'd have to get creative if I wanted to compete. Like go through menopause at twenty-five or something.

"She's good. You know, Pokémon this, Pokémon that. The usual. What's up with you? You sort of dropped off the face of the earth since the big day."

Shrugging, I responded, "School keeps me busy enough." I was trying to think of a good way to introduce the Valerie subject.

"So I heard you went on a date …?"

Or she could just introduce it herself. That worked too. "I've been on a few since then," I admitted, grinning slightly to myself.

"Same chick?"

"Yep."

Motherhood had not impaired her nosy nature. "Well what are you waiting for, tell me everything."

And so for the next twenty minutes or so I caught Roxanne up on all of the details. It would've taken less but Roxanne had to keep interrupting me to attend to Alisha. When I was through bearing my soul, Roxanne paused to absorb the entire story. I waited silently for her to comment.

"So are you guys an official item?" Roxanne asked after a minute of silent contemplation.

Frowning, I said, "Uh, I'm not sure."

"How can you not know?"

"How can you know? I must have missed that course in high school. Is there some kind of announcement ritual that I'm not aware of?"

Roxanne laughed at that. "I don't know. I just figured you would've talked about it by now. But I forget you're not one of those talk-about-your-emotions kind of person."

Now what was that supposed to mean? "I do too talk about my emotions. I'm doing it right now in fact. It's all I've been doing for the past seven years, or were you not paying attention?"

"Oh you talk about them to your friends, but not to the person your feelings are targeted on. Besides, you didn’t whine about Jessica for seven years, because you kept your feelings hidden for three. And even after Jessica and the rest of the world found out, you still refused to talk about it unless it was forced out of you."

This wasn't at all how I'd expected this conversation to go. Why was she lecturing me? "What's your point, Rox?" I asked, a bit more harshly than I should've.

"Hey, calm down woman. I'm just saying that a lot of your problems would be solved if you'd just open your mouth once in a while and say what's on your mind. I mean, there was a time when one couldn't shut you up for anything, but ever since the Jessica thing you've turned into this shell."

My frown returned. I'd turned into a shell? "What?"

"Nevermind. Look, all I'm saying is that if you're confused, and I know you are cause I know you… then you should just talk to Valerie and clear things up."

She made it sound so simple. But I was willing to give it a shot. I didn't want to be a 'shell' anymore, whatever that meant.

"So when do I get to meet her?" Roxanne continued.

"Well she's probably at work tonight. I don't know when I'm going to see her again." I felt suddenly depressed at that realization. I should know when I'd get to see her again. Right? "I'd invite you to go to the club, but finding a babysitter at this hour…"

"Actually I had Zack on-call just in case you wanted to hang out."

I smiled. "Such a good uncle he's turned out to be."

"Yeah I don't know what I'd do without him. So do you want me to pick you up? Where are we going?"

"Well if you want to meet Valerie, then we're going to Las Olas."

"Great. I'll pick you up once I get everything settled over here."

"Sounds good. See you then." I said good bye and hung up the phone, wondering why I had just offered to introduce Valerie to Roxanne. I didn't even know where Valerie was. What if she wasn't at work? Would I go as far as showing up at her doorstep again?

Sighing, I leaned back against the wall. Only one way to find out.

 

 

An hour and a half later Roxanne and I had arrived at Whispers. It was about twice as crowded as I'd ever seen it so finding an available table took a while. As we walked through the mobs of people I kept my eyes peeled for any sign of Valerie but didn't catch sight of her.

"So which one's yours?" Roxanne asked, surveying the crowd.

"I don't see her," I answered, unsure of whether I was disappointed or relieved. "I wasn't sure if she worked tonight or not." In fact I had no idea when she worked. Although I through I remembered her saying she was off Tuesdays and Thursdays. So did that mean she worked all other days?

Roxanne shook her head then continued looking around, tapping her fingers on the tabletop to the beat of the music. "I like this place. It's got atmosphere."

Atmosphere? I looked around again trying to observe the so-called atmosphere Roxanne was referring to. All I saw were sweaty people jumping up and down and drinking and laughing while red green and blue lights flashed above their heads. The Whispers logo was a pretty blue color and I liked that, but as far as atmosphere was concerned I couldn't very well attest to its existence. A pleasant one anyway. Loud people, loud techno music .. not my scene at all. But I was a girl on a mission. Sacrifices had to be made for the greater good.

Bestowing my undivided attention on Roxanne, I was about to open my mouth to suggest we try Valerie's apartment but I suddenly took notice of the song that had just started. It was one of those bands that Valerie liked. I turned in my seat to glance around one more time. Chances were that I'd missed her in the crowd.

Then I saw her.

And the music stopped, the lights stopped, the time stopped, my breath caught in my throat and I'm sure my heart stopped beating as well. It was as if the world had stopped spinning and all that existed was Valerie and whomever it was she was kissing.

I blinked a few times, willing it to be an illusion, a trick of the lights. Perhaps it was just someone who looked like Valerie.

The music returned at full blast, startling me. And I heard a distant voice calling my name. It took me a second to register what was happening. I felt a hand on my arm, and I turned slowly to face a concerned Roxanne.

"Are you okay?"

I shook my head and went back to staring at Valerie. They'd stopped kissing. Valerie was laughing at something the woman had said.

I had to get out of there. Otherwise I'd start crying and I didn't want to cry. "Let's go," I told Roxanne, and walked out without waiting for her to catch up.

Valerie never saw me.

 

Chapter 14

It had taken me forever to fall asleep that night and I probably would have slept through my entire Sunday had the phone not awakened me around one. I grabbed the receiver from its base, not bothering to open my eyes, and murmured a groggy, "Hello?"

From the other end of the line, I heard a breath and knew who it was instantly. By the time she said, "Hey," I'd already hung up the phone.

When it rang again a few seconds later, I turned off the ringer and slammed the receiver down on the base, making a noise which caused Nicole to lift her head from her latest novel. "Everything alright?" she asked.

"No," I answered harshly, turning over in my bed so that my back was to Nicole. I didn't want to talk about it.

"Suit yourself," muttered Nicole.

I lied there for a while, staring at the wall and pouting to myself. I'm not sure what I was feeling exactly. It was a mixture of things, jealousy and anger to name just a couple. In the midst of my introspection, I remembered what Roxanne had said about me not talking about my feelings and turning into a shell. I bit my lip, then turned over so I was facing my roommate. She looked up as I did so. "I caught Valerie with another girl last night," I told her suddenly.

The book was put away in a matter of seconds, and her full attention was bestowed on me. "Tell me everything," she said.

And so I recapped the events of the previous night as best I could.

"Wow," Nicole muttered when I was through, "I didn't see that one coming. How long were they kissing for?"

I shrugged, shaking my head. "I don't know. It all happened so fast …" I shrugged again. "I just got out of there as fast as I could."

Nicole nodded. "Wow," she said again. "I really don't know what to tell you, Al. That really sucks."

Yeah, it really sucks, I remember thinking. It sucked a lot. I grabbed my bathrobe and headed off to the bathroom to take a shower. There was no point in going back to sleep, I'd never manage it.

 

 

Later, after a few hours of non-productivity, I sat in front of my computer and booted it up. I hadn't checked me e-mail in days and I wanted to see if I had mail from Jessica.

My box was full, as expected, but most of it was junk mail. I deleted everything except four emails. Three of them were from Jessica. The fourth one was from Valerie. I stared at it for a long time, debating whether or not to open it. She was probably confused as to why I was ignoring her … but I was too hurt to care.

Still unsure about reading it, I decided to read Jessica's emails first. I opened the first one.

 

Alix,

Alright so I decided to stop buying stupid things, and decided to get you tee shirts instead. Now, before you start whining that you will never wear a shirt that says Paris or Rome on it, let me just say that you won't be disappointed at all. Intrigued yet? Well, you'll see what I mean when I get back. Anyway, I hope that everything is going well over there with you and your new woman. How is she?

Well Matthew and I leave for Athens tonight. So I have to get going. See you Saturday! I love you .. and so does Matthew.

Always,

Jess

I didn't reply, and instead hit next to read the following message.

Alix,

Hey I haven't heard from you. I hope everything's okay. Well, Matthew and I are now in Greece. It is beautiful here. For the Holidays we should plan a trip back here so I can show it to you. I think you'll love it in spite of your stubborn nature. What do you think? If you and Valerie are still together then she can come too. We'll double! It'll be fun. Anyway, we're off to do some more sightseeing and buy more tee shirts. Haha! Write me back, it's weird not hearing from you right away.

Love you,

Jess

 

Next.

 

Alix,

Alright, where are you?? I'm probably worrying for absolutely no reason but write me back and put me out of my misery. You know how paranoid I am about these things. I miss you.

Love,

Jess

 

I sat back in my chair smiling slightly. Jessica really was a paranoid being. I attributed this to her parents' "death." They hadn't really died, of course, but for three years everyone thought they had, including Jessica. It was one of those experiences you never recovered from, regardless.

Sitting up, I hit reply to the last message.

 

Jessica,

I'm sorry I hadn't responded to you sooner. I just hadn't checked my email the past few days. Everything's fine. You can resume breathing now. I'm sure that Greece is beautiful and I'll think about your offer to go for the holidays. But I'd prefer going somewhere more interesting. Like Australia. They have kangaroos. You can't beat seeing a real live kangaroo, Jess. And Koala bears. And the Crocodile Hunter. I mean, really. Does Greece have the Crocodile Hunter? I think not. It has stones and stuff. I think I'll pass.

Say hi to Matthew for me. I can't wait to see you guys when you get back on Saturday. I'm very excited about these mysterious tee-shirts of yours. Do they get up and dance or something? Well anyway .. I miss you too and I love you. Have fun.

Forever,

Alix

 

Once that email was sent, I stared at my inbox and let the cursor hover over Valerie's email. To read it or not to read it, that was the question. I slid the mouse down the mouse pad, dragging the cursor over the delete button, and double-clicked.

Not to read it was the answer.

 

 

The following afternoon, I was sitting at the student center with Jade, working on a junior bacon cheeseburger from Wendy's and a Biggie Dr Pepper. Jade had turned vegan on me and so her lunch consisted of unidentifiable goop and a bottle of water. We were both equally disgusted with the other's meal choices and had no other choice but agree to disagree.

"So anyway," Jade was saying, "Did you and Valerie ever establish that you were in a monogamous relationship?"

I glanced up from my burger. "Well, not really. No. Why?"

Jade shook her head at me. "Are you even together?"

I frowned. "Well I don't know …"

She rolled her eyes and took a sip of water. "You can't be mad at her for kissing someone else if you guys aren't even together. If you want to be in a relationship with her then you should tell her so."

Why did Jade have to make sense all the time. It was unnerving.

"Look, did it hurt you a lot to see your woman with that other chick?" Jade asked.

I nodded.

She shrugged as though the answer was totally obvious. "Well there you go. It was sign."

"A sign?"

"Yeah a sign that you should get your butt over there and tell the girl that you want to be with her. Otherwise you're gonna lose her to that other chick and you'll be back on square one. Lusting over a now married woman. How pathetic is that?"

Very pathetic, I acknowledged, though not out loud. I sighed. "I just don’t know if I want to be with her anymore. I mean, I thought we had something going, and although we never officially signed any monogamous relationship papers, I thought we were ... something." I put my burger down. I'd suddenly lost my appetite. "If she was kissing someone else then obviously she wants to be with other people. I can't just swing over there on a vine and dub myself queen of her jungle."

Jade shrugged. "All's I'm saying is that you should at least talk to her. Just because she was kissing somebody else doesn't mean she doesn't have feelings for you."

"If she has feelings for me she shouldn't be kissing other people," I argued.

"Ideally, no. But this is the real world."

"Well the real world sucks."

"I kind of liked the London cast," Jade joked. She caught the look I sent her and became serious again. "Look, Alix, I know where you're coming from but you have to remember that Valerie is probably not the sexual hermit that you are."

First a shell, then a hermit. Did my friends discuss these things with each other when I wasn't around? "I'm not a hermit. But I'm not a sexual vending machine either. A person can't stick their tongue down my throat and expect me to put out. I don't work that way." I was angry and I didn't want to be. "And anyway, that has nothing to do with it."

"Talk to her," Jade advised me.

I didn't respond. Instead I grabbed my tray, got up and walked away. I wanted to get my hermit-self back into its shell before I turned into queen crab.

 

 

Hours later I found myself standing before door number 418. Jade had been right of course, but it took me a while to come to terms with what she'd said. In the end, there was only the bottom line: I didn't want to lose Valerie.

And so there I was. Except that as I'd gone to knock I'd been hit with a horrible thought which had caused my arm to lower back to my side and my feet to take a step backward.

What if she was with someone?

Seeing her kiss someone else had hurt enough without me having to interrupt her in the middle of something more … elaborate.

I bit my lip, torn between actions. I decided to think logically. It was Monday night, she was probably at work. And if she was at work then she wasn't at home. And if she wasn't home, then I had nothing to worry about.

"Isn't it beautiful?"

I turned to find Valerie studying her door in mock-appreciation. Then she smiled at me and continued, "When I first saw it I thought, 'That's the door I want to live behind.'"

She was carrying a few grocery bags and as a reflex I reached out to help her. "I wasn't sure if you were home," I replied, grabbing a couple of bags so that she could reach for her keys.

"So you were using your X-ray vision to determine whether or not I was in?" she asked, unlocking the door and kicking it open with her foot.

Under different circumstances I would have laughed. Or I would have come up with something ingeniously witty to come back at her with. As it happened, however, I barely managed a smile as I walked inside the apartment and closed the door. "You don't work on Mondays?" I asked, changing the subject. I put the bags I was carrying on her kitchen table and stepped back, giving her room.

She was putting groceries away as she answered. "I work in the mornings."

"I didn't realize people went to night clubs during the day."

"Well, Whispers is a restaurant-slash-night club. The bar is open during the day, however and that's where I come in."

"Oh," was my reply.

Her back was to me as she said, "I didn't think I'd be seeing you again."

Her comment caught me by surprise and I was suddenly at a loss. She chose that moment to turn around and I could see the pain in her eyes. I remained silent.

"Any reason why you've been avoiding me?" she continued. "If you didn't like my cooking, I'm sorry. I'll take some classes."

I felt like crying. I wanted nothing more than to forget I'd seen anything and just throw my arms around her and kiss her … but I couldn't. "I saw you," I found myself saying. "At Whispers on Saturday night, with that other woman…" I studied her face for a reaction. Expecting to see guilt or shame .. something to let me know she felt bad about it. I wanted her to say she was sorry and that she'd never do it again. That it had been a moment of weakness or something corny like that. I would've accepted that excuse because I wanted to. However, she did none of the above.

Valerie started laughing. Then she took a seat at the table and shook her head, her laughter shifting into an angry sigh. "You saw that? Of course. She called you didn't she?"

Needless to say she'd lost me. My eyebrows furrowed as I stared at her. "Did who call me?"

"Robin. She probably plotted the whole thing." The last part was said more to herself than to me.

I blinked. "Who the hell is Robin?"

Her eyes snapped up to look at me. "You mean she didn't call you?"

"Valerie, I have no idea what you're talking about. I went to Whispers to introduce you to my friend, and then I saw you … and—"

"So she had nothing to do with it?" she asked incredulously.

"What? No. Who's Robin?" Somehow this conversation had turned weird. And it wasn't supposed to be weird. At least, I didn't think it did. I made a note to watch more romance movies instead of action and horror ones. I'd obviously missed something.

Valerie stood up suddenly and grabbed my hand pulling me to the living room where she sat me down on the couch. "Okay, it's not what you think."

Well this line I knew. "It never is," I muttered under my breath.

"Robin Graham is my ex," Valerie explained, obviously ignoring my comment. "That's who you saw me with on Saturday. And I wasn't kissing her—"

"Could've fooled me…"

"Look, the woman is insane. She came to Whispers on Saturday and pulled me aside, claiming she had something important to talk to me about. Out of the blue she starts kissing me and I pushed her away—"

I frowned. I didn't see her push her away, although I had looked away to talk to Roxanne. Then I remembered the second bit of information. "But I saw you laughing with her."

"She said she knew I still had feelings for her. I was laughing at her not with her." Valerie sat down next to me. "Look, Alix, I know it must have looked bad but I swear it's not how it looked—at all!"

Psycho stalker ex girlfriends. This is where we started running for our lives. I had no idea what to believe. "This is awfully bizarre."

Valerie sighed and nodded. "I know. But why would I lie?"

Why indeed. "Well, I still don't know you very well. You could be a player for all I know."

"Want me to take a lie detector test?"

Not a bad idea, extreme, but not a bad idea at all. I sighed to myself, and searched her eyes, finding all the truth I needed right there. "I didn't really come here to demand an explanation from you … "

She seemed surprised and a bit confused.

I ran a hand through my hair nervously and begged my mind to form the correct sentences in expressing what I'd come to say. "I'm sorry that I hung up on you when you called and then turned off the ringer and refused to respond to your messages or your emails. I was angry, but then I realized I had no right to be because we've never really discussed our relationship, or lack thereof. So what I came to tell you was that …I would very much like …the right." I looked into her eyes nervously, waiting for her to say something.

She was quiet for a moment, then ventured a small smile. "Do you have rules for relationships too?"

I laughed. "I've never really been in one so I guess I'll have to play it by ear."

She grinned. "Well, then I bestow you the right to be angry at me for kissing other women, although you won't have to exercise it often."

My heart filled with relief and it was all I could do not to jump up and start dancing with joy. "That's good," I replied, instead. "You don't want to see me angry."

"No, I don't."

I brushed my lips against hers. And that was the end of that conversation.

 

Chapter 15

 

I spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday floating a few inches off the ground, unable to wipe an ever-present grin from my face. I didn't get to see Valerie either of those days, unfortunately, because of school and her work, but we made plans for Thursday night.

We met on the side walk across from Whispers, then walked the rest of the way to the beach where Valerie proceeded to spread out a blanket so we could sit on the sand. I stood off to the side of her while she did so, looking around the fairly empty beach. There were a few people with the same idea camped in various spots across the sand, but for the most part we were alone.

"Come here often?" I asked her, taking a seat on the blanket and leaning back on my elbows. It was a nice night for sitting out on the beach. Clear skies, nice breeze, wonderful company.

Joining me, Valerie smiled. "Yeah, this is where I bring all my girlfriends."

"Yeah? Well let me know when your next hot date is so I can kill her," I responded, grinning at her. Valerie sent a surprised look my way and I simply shrugged. "What? You think I can't play the jealous girlfriend role? I'll have you know, I won Best Actress in high school for my role as a jealous girlfriend."

Valerie laughed. "I don't doubt it for a second." She reached into one of the pockets of her cargo pants and pulled out a can of Dr Pepper. "I picked this up for you a little while ago."

I couldn't help the smile that crept across my lips. I took the can gratefully and leaned forward to kiss her cheek. "Thanks. I think I'll keep you, if only because you supply me with my favorite soda all the time."

"It's all part of my plan," Valerie said, nodding and rubbing her hands together in an attempt to look evil and mischievous.

I took a sip and watched her carefully. "What plan is this?"

"Well I can't very well tell you that," Valerie responded, frowning slightly. "Disclosing the plan is not part of the plan."

"Is my pouring Dr Pepper over your head part of your plan?" I asked innocently.

Valerie laughed aloud and lied back on the blanket, staring up at the sky. She didn't say anything, and for a few minutes, neither did I.

As she contemplated the heavens, I stared down at the sweating can in my hands, wondering if I should bring up what I'd been wanting to bring up. There was so much about her I didn't know, and I wanted to know everything. But what if she didn't want to tell me everything? What if I scared her off?

"Tell me about Jessica," she said softly.

Her request caught me completely by surprise and I turned to look down at her face. She was staring up at me curiously. I took a deep breath. "What do you want to know?"

She shrugged, seemingly uncomfortable. "I want to know how worried I should be about her."

"Worried?" I smiled. "Well, seeing as she's married and straight, I don't think you have very much to worry about."

"And if she wasn't?" Valerie asked, catching my gaze and holding it as though searching my eyes for the truth.

If she wasn't? I frowned, unsure of what she was asking or what she wanted to know. Could I picture myself having a relationship with Jessica? Not one in the fantasyland that was my mind, but a real one? No. Not if I was honest with myself, as I hadn't been the past seven years. She was my fantasy. One that seemed to be ever-presently fading with each second that Valerie's eyes bore into mine. "If she wasn't … then she should be the one worried about you."

This brought a smile to Valerie's face.

Relieved that I'd said the right thing, I contemplated how to phrase my own request. In the end, I decided to follow her example. "So, tell me about Robin Graham." Just saying her name left a bad taste in my mouth. I quickly took another sip of Dr Pepper to wash it away. I looked down and caught Valerie playing with her tongue ring. Every few seconds the metal ball would probe through her lips only to disappear again. She was silent for so long I was afraid she had either not heard me or wasn't going to answer. I was about to repeat myself when she finally spoke.

"What would you like to know?" she asked, glancing up at me.

"Everything."

Valerie nodded and seemed to sigh. "Well, we were together for about a year. She was a bartender at Whispers for a while and got me the job there. Then she and Dean, the owner, had a fight and Robin got fired. That was about three months ago. Robin was really pissed and wanted to leave Florida. She asked me to go with her but I had school and I like my job at the club. So I told her no and that pissed her off even more. She always had this really bad temper. Anyway, she moved her stuff out of my apartment and disappeared. She resurfaced a couple of weeks ago, begging Dean to rehire her."

"So you lived together?" This new revelation caused the dull ache in my heart to worsen. I hated feeling jealous.

Valerie nodded in response. "Yeah, for about five months." She sat up on her elbows and glanced at me. "I wasn't in love with her or anything. Just lonely."

I nodded and forced a smile. "You don't have to explain." She didn't. But it made me feel better that she cared enough to do it anyway.

She took a deep breath and looked into my eyes. "Since we're on the topic of personal questions, can I ask something else?"

"Sure." There really weren't that many personal things about me. "You can ask me anything."

"What happened to your dad?" she asked gently.

My breath caught in my throat at her question and I looked away. "He died when I was twelve," I answered softly. "Cancer."

Valerie nodded and took my hand. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay." I bit my lip. "What about your parents?"

The tongue ring again. This time she answered quickly, as though she'd been expecting the question. "My dad is still in Boston. I'm not sure where my mom is." She shrugged, and looked down at the blanket. "She left when I was two." Then without warning she leaned up to kiss me briefly on the lips. She pulled away and smiled, "It's okay. About my mom, I mean."

I nodded mutely, feeling shocked and sad at the same time. Perhaps we needed to stop with the painful memories line of questioning. Still, there was one more thing I wanted to ask her about. "What does your tattoo signify? The one with the broken hearts. I mean, why did you choose that one?"

Valerie smiled. "I got it when I was fourteen. It was a reminder to never fall in love."

My eyebrows shot upward. "Why?"

She shrugged. "When my mom left my dad, I saw what it did to him. He was heartbroken. Still is. I didn't want to end up like that."

"Seems to have worked so far," I told her, feeling depressed all of a sudden, even more so than I already was.

Valerie shook her head, sitting up so she was eye level with me. "It had been working." She leaned forward until her lips were inches from mine. "Until now."

And then she kissed me, taking my breath away. I lied back on the blanket with her on top of me, our lips never breaking contact. Her tongue parted my lips as her hands traveled down the side of my body. My mind we reeling. My heart was racing. I almost forgot we were in the middle of the beach.

Valerie pulled away hesitantly and smiled down at me. "Maybe this isn't the best place."

I grinned. "No, probably not."

 

 

So we left the beach in search of a better place. This ended up being Valerie's apartment, her room to be more precise.

We were kissing on her bed. We'd kissed before, but this time it was different. This time there was the promise of something more. I'm not sure how it had happened; how we'd made up our minds. Or maybe our bodies made the decision for us. Or maybe it was our hearts. Or all three of them together. But suddenly, it seemed out of my control.

"Does this mean I passed all the sex rules?" Valerie whispered, staring intently into my eyes.

I smiled. "What sex rules?"

Valerie laughed and rolled off the bed. I watched her walk over to her stereo, raising my eyebrows in silent question.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

A few seconds later, The Cranberries' "Dreams" filtered through the speakers. "Inspirational music," Valerie announced, heading back toward the bed.

"The Cranberries?"

She shrugged and smiled. "Actually it's the Boys on the Side soundtrack. It's on shuffle." She kicked off her shoes as she joined me back on the bed.

That's when I noticed she was trembling slightly. I frowned and stared up at her. "Are you cold?" I couldn't imagine how she possibly could be. I felt like I was burning.

Valerie shook her head and lied down beside me. "No. Just nervous."

I was taken by surprise. "You've done this before."

"Not with you."

I stared at her silently for a long while. I'm not sure what I was thinking about. Perhaps I was trying to figure out why such a beautiful woman would be interested in me in the first place, let alone be nervous about sleeping with me. Or maybe I was just swallowed whole by the intensity of her eyes. "Would it make you feel better if I told you I was nervous too?"

Valerie smiled. "A little."

"Okay. Well I'm terrified."

She laughed quickly and then kissed me, making me forget all about being nervous. Her lips traced their way down my neck as her hands made their way down the length of my body. Everything blurred. I couldn't even hear the music anymore, even though I knew it was playing.

Articles of clothing started flying across the room, and before long I was staring at a very naked Valerie. Just looking at her took my breath away. I lost track of where she was touching me and with what. I just closed my eyes and surrendered myself to the feel of her lips and hands and tongue caressing every inch of my body.

I don't remember every detail but I do remember screaming her name some time later. And some time after that she screamed mine. And at some point before dawn, we managed to fall asleep in each other's arms, both of us trembling …but no longer afraid.

 

Chapter 16

I'd always imagined the morning after to be something memorable and magical; a point in time designed to reflect back on an important milestone in one's life.

But it wasn't.

By the time my mind seeped into consciousness, it was far from being morning. In fact, the alarm clock beside Valerie's bed read 5:46pm and I blinked a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly. I'd never slept so late in my life. But at least I had good reason. This thought caused me to grin and I shifted my gaze from the alarm clock down to Valerie's slumbering form. Sunlight from the nearby window cast a soft glow on her golden hair. I thought I'd never seen anything so beautiful.

I lied there quietly for a long while watching her sleep. At 6:23 she opened her eyes slowly and stared right into mine. This time I didn't care if she'd caught me staring. A lot of things didn't seem so important anymore and it struck me as amazing that we'd only known each other a couple of weeks.

Valerie was the first to speak. "Good morning."

"Hardly," I responded, nodding to her alarm clock.

She half turned and saw the time. "Oh man." She turned back to me, looking sad. "I have to work at seven," she said regretfully.

Nodding, I shrugged slightly. "I know."

She leaned forward to kiss me and in one swift move lifted herself on top of me, slipping her thigh between my legs. I gasped and pulled away in surprise.

"Are you trying to make yourself late?" I whispered.

She smiled and shrugged. "That's your job."

I arched an eyebrow at the challenge and in a swift move of my own had her on her back. "Don't say I didn't warn you."

 

 

Needless to say she was late to work. Three hours late, in fact. And I whistled proudly to myself as I drove back to school.

Instead of driving directly to Baldwin U, I made a detour and ended up at Jade's. I didn't want to be alone for some reason. Perhaps because I was too happy and too excited and needed to share some of my joy before I exploded.

At the front door, I hesitated. If Jade wasn't home then Aunt Fifi would undoubtedly sweep me aboard her sinking ship of madness and I might never get to shore. On the other hand, if I turned around and went home I'd have to sit in my empty dorm room staring up at Steven Tyler wishing Valerie didn’t have to work so I could go back to her apartment. After weighing the pros and cons of each possibility, I decided to knock.

Aunt Fifi opened the door a few seconds later and I instantly regretted my decision. I hadn't seen the woman for a month or so, since Jade usually preferred to leave her house at all possible moments, but she hadn't changed much. On this particular day, she was clad in a grass skirt and a coconut bra, holding what appeared to be a piña colada in one hand.

I smiled and then bit my lip to keep from laughing. "Uh, is Jade home?" I ventured to ask, though this question very rarely received an answer. A helpful one anyway.

"Alix! What are you doing in Hawaii?"

Her learning my name had been a big step toward progress. Initially, Aunt Fifi had welcomed her visitors by screaming bloody murder and shutting the door in their face. "I came to see Jade," I responded.

Aunt Fifi shook her head and stepped aside to welcome me in. "She's still in Florida. I'm on vacation with my monkeys." She shut the door and pointed to the living room.

It looked the same as always. A brown couch facing a 13" TV set, with an old wooden coffee table resting in between. I nodded as though I was really seeing Hawaii and Aunt Fifi's imaginary monkeys. "They look like they're enjoying themselves."

"Yes, but they're bad boys."

"Most monkeys are."

Aunt Fifi nodded as though I'd said a very deep and philosophical thing. "Would you like some suntan lotion? I wouldn't want you getting burned out here." She handed me a bottle of SPF-100.

I spread some on my arms to humor her and handed the bottle back. "Thanks. Do you mind if I go back to my hotel room? I have a headache."

She patted me on the head and spanked me on the butt. "You go right ahead, sweetums. I'm just gonna go on ahead and get the monkeys back to their tents." She said the next part in a near whisper, "If you see the chickens, please don't tell them about the skinny dipping. They're very sensitive about that."

"Your secret's safe with me," I assured her, and managed to escape up the stairs as fast as I could. Safely on the second floor, I sighed with relief, then headed to Jade's room. I was even more relieved to hear loud music coming from her room. I knocked loudly so she could hear it over Nine Inch Nails.

I heard the volume lower and Jade shout, "I haven't seen your bloody chickens!" Then the volume went right back up.

I shook my head, smiling, and opened the door. When Jade saw it was me she turned off the stereo and moved away from the telescope. The girl had been obsessed with aliens for as long as I'd known her. She spent hours staring through the lens of her telescope in the hopes of catching some sign of extraterrestrial life.

Closing the door behind me, I looked around the room. It had been a while since I'd been there. As usual, X-Files posters covered most of the walls along with miscellaneous posters of aliens here and there. Behind me, her favorite poster of Jerry O'Connell covered the door. Her bed was more like a mattress thrown over large piece of wood which balanced itself on the four cement blocks at each corner. Next to that was the window and the telescope hanging partly outside. And to my left was the desk, which was a cluttered mess of books and notebooks. She had a laptop computer, too and a printer, but the computer was hidden under the piles of crap on her desk and the printer rested atop a black egg crate on the floor.

"Well this is a surprise," Jade said, grinning at me as she sat down on the bed. "What are you doing here?"

Walking over to the desk, I put the stuff that was on her chair on top of the stuff on her desk and sat down, swiveling the chair around to face Jade. I sat back and simply grinned.

Jade stared at me with a clueless expression for a few seconds, then her jaw dropped. "You didn't…"

My grin turned into a full-smile and I blushed.

She started laughing. "You little whore! I thought it was 'too soon' and all that other nonsense?"

This time I shrugged and said, "Well I decided that twenty years was more than enough time."

Jade leaned forward. "So? Was it good?"

Why did people always ask this question? It was like a reflex or something. "Well not that I have much basis for comparison," I answered, "but I have no complaints."

"Leave it to you to give me such a vague response," Jade said, rolling her eyes. "You're an actress, you should be more expressive."

"Want me to act it out for you?"

Jade sighed and leaned back against the pillows. She crossed her arms against her chest and studied me quietly. "So what's your crisis now?"

"I don't have a crisis," I answered.

"You always have a crisis."

Thinking hard, I attempted to locate any crisis sources laying about in my mind but I couldn't come up with anything. I shrugged. "I don't have any." I smiled. "I'm really, truly happy."

Jade made a face. "This is so depressing. Pretty soon you're going to be wearing pastel colors instead of black; giving Valentines' Day gifts on V-Day instead of setting the card shops on fire—"

"I never did that."

"No," Jade allowed, "but you thought about it." She sighed in an exaggerated manner. "C'est la vie. So, how are you going to tell Jessica that her seven-year reign over your heart has come to a brutal end?"

I bit my lip nervously. Hadn't really thought about that. Then again, it wasn't like Jessica hadn't been begging me to get over her for years. "She'll be happy for me," I responded quite confidently. "She wanted me to move on all along."

Jade shook her head. "For a lesbian you sure don't know women very well."

 

 

In the world according to Jade Cooper, Jessica was going to be jealous. She was going to be jealous while pretending she was happy. She was going to feign her love and acceptance of Valerie, meanwhile attempting to find the most insignificant of reasons to dislike her. Then she was going to try to convince me that Valerie was not good enough for me and eventually break us up.

On my way to Jessica's mansion the following day, I mauled over everything that Jade had told me the previous night. And although I had reminded her several times that it had been Jessica who had practically forced me to go out with Valerie, Jade insisted that she was right. But I didn't think she was. Jessica wasn't like that.

It was almost six in the afternoon and to be honest I hadn't been up for very long. My sleepover at Valerie's had screwed up my entire sleeping schedule. I'd stayed at Jade's until nearly three in the morning listening to her talk about lunar eclipses or something of the sort. By looking at her you'd never think that my best friend was such a dork, but she was.

At the circular driveway, I parked my yellow bug and jumped out. I looked up at the sky momentarily, stalling in spite of my excitement because I was feeling kind of nervous about seeing Jessica. It was a cloudy day for a change, making the air humid and hot. To make matters worse, there was no wind blowing in any direction. It was one of those days were it was best to stay inside until the Sunshine State went back to living up to its name.

Slowly, I made my way across the gravel driveway to the front doors, the rocks beneath my feet crunching loudly under the assault of my impending weight. As expected, Maurice was already standing at the doorway. "Hey Mau. Long time no see."

He nodded his reply, closing the door behind me. "She's in her quarters."

Thanking him, I headed across the large foyer to the master staircase and ascended two steps at a time. I reached Jessica's room a short while later and found both doors wide open. A few open suitcases lay on the waterbed, slightly sinking into the mattress, but Jessica was nowhere in sight. Out of habit and perhaps even instinct, I headed to the balcony and found her in her usual spot against the railing. As she turned, I gasped. "What did you do to your hair?" I cried.

Jessica's gorgeous black mane was gone; cut short, spiking up on the sides. She looked beautiful but I was in shock. "You don't like it?" she asked, observing my expression.

I stepped forward to get a better look and shook my head, smiling. "No, I love it. You look great. I've just never seen you with short hair before."

Jessica smiled and closed the distance between us. "I've missed you," she stated, pulling me close for a hug.

She always smelled like vanilla. I'd never figured out if it was some kind of body spray or her shampoo or both things mixed together, but she always smelled fantastic. I swallowed and forced myself to pull away from her embrace. "Where's Mathew?" I asked.

Motioning for me to sit down on one of the lounge chairs, she responded, "He went to visit the in-laws." She smiled at the term as though getting used to the idea of calling them that, which I figured she was. "And to give Nina and Sarah their gifts from abroad."

"And you didn't go with him?" I asked.

Jessica shrugged, then sat down in the chair next to mine. "I wanted to wait for you." She smiled. "Besides, I'm going to dinner over there later tonight so I figure they could live without me for a couple of hours."

I nodded, suddenly feeling strange. Later, I began to recognize that strange feeling as indifference. Jealousy is an odd thing. Even if you manage to control it, to push it to the back of your mind, it still finds a way to hurt you on some level. Like a sharp pain that fades quickly but still impacts you at that moment. I was so used to its ever-present hold over my heart that not feeling it was an odd sensation. It threw me for a loop.

"You okay?" Jessica asked, seemingly concerned.

Smiling, I started to nod again, then decided it was more convincing if I actually spoke. "So, where are these magnificent gifts you've been collecting for me all over Europe?"

Jessica was on her feet at once, moving swiftly into the room. A minute or so later, she was back, holding a really big, and really full bag. "Go nuts."

I took the bag and put it down on the lounge chair, sitting up straighter to make room. I looked inside and laughed out loud. "You weren't kidding when you said you were gonna start getting me shirts." There had to be about twenty or so tee-shirts neatly folded into squares. I pulled out the first one and unfolded it, expecting to see a picture of the Eiffel Tower or one of those '…and all I got was this lousy tee shirt' tee shirts, but my jaw dropped when I saw the picture. It was Aerosmith. "Where did you get this?" I asked excitedly, glancing at Jessica in surprise.

She was grinning. "We found this one store, purely by accident, and it was mostly rock and roll memorabilia. So we got you all the Aerosmith tee shirts they had, which were about ten different ones." She shrugged. "Well anyway, I knew you didn't have any of those."

I was already pulling out the rest. There were about ten different Aerosmith shirts that I'd never seen before in my life, an oddity considering my obsession. And about ten more that varied from Nine Inch Nails to Garbage to Marilyn Manson. I was in tee shirt heaven. When I was done unfolding and refolding my treasures, I leaned over the mess to hug Jessica. "Thank you so much. I thought for sure you were bringing me back snow globes or something."

Jessica laughed as she hugged me back. "Nah, I would never torture you that badly."

As I started putting the shirts back in the bag, I was aware of the fact that Jessica was studying me quietly. I looked over at her expectantly.

"You never told me how things were going with Valerie."

I was unsure as to how to proceed. Revealing everything in one sentence didn't seem like the way to go, so in the end I went with the subtle approach. "They're going really well, actually," I responded, resuming my task.

Jessica leaned back in the chair. "Really well as in …"

Hesitantly, I answered, "Really well as in we're a couple now."

I could tell Jessica was surprised though she tried hard not to show it. "Wow, I really missed a lot while I was gone, huh? So how long has it been?"

This conversation was inevitable, so I sat back in the chair, ready to bare all. "Only a few days," I responded. "Since Tuesday."

Jessica nodded thoughtfully, absorbing the information. I searched her face for any sign of Jade's paranoid-delusional predictions but found no traces of jealousy upon her gentle features. Finally, she asked, "Are you happy?"

The question made me smile. "Yes. I really … like her." Granted, I'd done a lot more than like her on Thursday night … and then again Friday evening ….

Jessica caught the blush that crept involuntarily through my face and she arched a curious eyebrow in my direction. "Is there something I should know?" she asked. She was watching me carefully and I knew there was no way out of the situation unless I managed to lie, which I could never do. Not to Jessica.

I decided to go with the subtle, I'm-too-shy-to-say-the-words approach. "We .. um… you know…" I chewed on my lower lip and gazed over to see her reaction.

What sat before me was a very stunned Jessica. "You slept with her?" she asked incredulously. "Already?"

Nodding, I said, "Yep."

Once again, Jessica retreated into internal calculation mode. She was silent for about thirty seconds and then responded with, "Was it good?"

I suspected that I'd be answering that question a lot in the near future. Not that I was going to advertise the loss of my innocence, but news seemed to spread like wildfire in our small circle of friends. "Define good…"

Jessica stared at me for a moment then said, "Did you ….?"

"Did I what?" I knew what she was asking but that didn't keep me from teasing her. Besides, it wasn't everyday that I got to see Jessica Heart blush.

Her dark blue eyes narrowed at me. "You know very well what."

Grinning, I said, "I don't think I have to answer that question, Mrs. Collins."

She sighed dramatically and shrugged, saying, "Fine. Be a brat. What are you doing tomorrow?"

"Nothing in particular."

"Come to dinner with Mathew and me," Jessica suggested. "Bring Valerie if she can make it. I'd love to get to know her better."

"I'll run it by her when I see her tonight." Valerie had offered to cook for me that night. I was pretty excited about the entire thing. No one had ever gone through all the trouble of cooking for me before. Besides my mom, of course, but that didn't really count. "I should probably get going and let you get to Mathew's. You know how in-laws can be."

Jessica smiled. "Not really. But I guess I'm about to find out."

Yes, I thought, nodding to myself. We were about to find out a lot of things. Jessica with her new husband… Roxanne with her daughter … and me …? Well, I guess I was about to find out.

 

To be continued …

 


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