The Day After by Journs

The Day After
by Journs

 

 

PART ONE

 

There was a first for everything. A first step, a first word, a first, exhilarating moment to stand independent from familial support, a first crush and a first heartbreak.

There was also the first time for waking up in the arms of the one you loved most in the world, and for Jennifer Logan that occasion took place on the cusp of her twenty fifth birthday.

As usual, she did not awaken with anything remotely approaching speed. Instead a series of impressions and sensations gently pulled her to edge of consciousness, but once she realized she was both naked and not alone she suddenly found herself fully alert.

Her eyes flew open.

Hello!

Then she recalled just exactly how she got that way and as her shock subsided a satisfied little smile stole across her lips. She could feel a warm-bodied presence pressed against her back and the soft, even rhythm of breathing against her neck and for one unaccustomed to waking thus, it was simultaneously wonderful and disconcerting. Though mostly wonderful.

Until last night, she’d had only one lover in her life, Curtis, her ex-fiancé. And spooning had never been a part of their routine, though not for a lack of trying on his part. It had quite simply never interested her, being, in her mind, one of those ‘couple things’ that sounded great in theory and looked cozy in movies but when actually attempted turned out rather awkward and uncomfortable. Elbows invariably ended up in the wrong place and limbs seemed to double in weight as sleep descended. And it hadn’t exactly helped that Curtis snored. Loud. In her ear. All. Night. Long. God, it had been annoying.

But what a difference actually being in love can make.

She glanced down at the strong, warm arm draped around her waist and reached up to run soft fingertips along its length until her hand was similarly tucked between her torso and the bed. All the difference in the world, she realized.

Then her eyes strayed to the smattering of scars upon her lover’s forearm, scars that she had been too busy to fully register the night before and her blonde brows drew forward in a frown of concern.

“…Still have some scars, though. Some burns,” Resa Gustavez had said, her manner off-hand and vague.

A pang of empathy seized her and Jennifer swallowed hard. There had been a trace of hesitation in Resa’s voice when she’d told of her injuries, a near shyness that seemed foreign in one so naturally confident and brave. It hadn’t mattered a whit to Jennifer, of course. Just seeing Resa again, being with her after all the months of separation, had been her main focus. But now it was morning and her heart was calmer and Jennifer found she desperately wanted to know exactly what had happened to the person now lying next to her during their time apart. She needed to know.

Resa stirred and the arm around Jennifer’s middle tightened its hold, pulling their bodies closer in an unconscious act of familiarity the likes of which Jennifer had never before truly experienced. She heard a gentle sigh seconds before feeling a soft kiss against her shoulder blade and Jennifer closed her eyes at the contact, a tiny shiver wending its way across her skin.

She shifted to turn around in order to face Resa and the breath caught in the back of her throat.

It wasn’t just the color of her eyes that always seemed to arrest Jennifer so; it was their intrinsic intensity, the way they seemed to see into her every aspect, as if Jennifer’s soul were laid out as naked as her body.

Neither spoke. They just looked at the other with the curious sort of awe of two people who had no experience in matters of intimacy so resoundingly absolute.

Jennifer reached out to brush a dark lock of hair away from Resa’s face and then let her hand slide down the side of her lean body to come to rest at the curve of her waist. Resa’s gaze never faltered, never broke contact from her own and it felt as if they were having an entire conversation without a single word needing to be said. Jennifer’s heart hurt and tears prickled the back of her eyes. She had always been an emotional person, the type who cried through sappy Kodak commercials and manipulative Dateline episodes and thus she had no illusions about being able to stop the tears now. Not when she felt this happy.

Resa frowned with concern and wiped at Jennifer’s wet cheek. “What?” she asked thickly, her voice cracking from early morning lack of use.

The younger woman shrugged, both embarrassed and a bit amazed. “You’re here,” she whispered and for one who made her living through the art of wordplay, she found herself profoundly at a loss.

Blue eyes opposite hers softened into a gentle smile. “That I am,” came the quite assurance and Jennifer ducked her head a little as a wave of bashfulness crested over her.

“I wasn’t sure…” she murmured, letting her sentence trail off as she silently wished herself even the slightest bit better versed in matters such as this.

Resa placed two fingers beneath her chin and tipped her head up until their eyes met once more. “Be sure,” she said, giving her a firm look, at which Jennifer could only smile.

“Okay.”

Resa’s hand dropped down onto the younger woman’s hip. “How do you feel?”

“Sore.”

A dark eyebrow arched. “Sore?” she asked, taken aback.

“Yeah. Like I just ran ten miles and didn’t take the time to do a warm-up or down and — this really isn’t the most romantic thing you can tell a person right about now, is it?”

Resa regarded her ruefully. “Well, it’s…not exactly poetry.”

Jennifer grinned, gripped by a capricious surge of delight. “Oh, I’ve never been good at poetry. I’m far too much of a realist.”

“Clearly.”

She pursed her lips in exaggerated thought, then “Um, okay, how ‘bout this: I feel like I’ve just made love for the first time in my entire life and I cannot get over my incredible fortune at waking up beside someone as amazing as you or the fact that I may actually be lucky enough to wake up beside you again, if I play my cards right.”

Resa made a bit of a show in considering this, then murmured, “Better.”

“Wait, ‘better’ as in that was a better reply or ‘if I play my cards better’ kind of better?”

The grin across Resa’s face was undeniably mischievous. “Just better.”

She narrowed her eyes, recognizing the game. “Uh-huh. Ooookay,” she said, feeling a shade more confident. After all, with her childhood, teasing was a language she understood quite well and so she regarded her companion with a determined shift of the jaw. “Fine. What about: And I think of how I almost can’t believe I found you again after all our time apart and how I will cherish last night for the rest of my life and the grace of whatever Divine Being, in His or Her inimitable wisdom, brought us back together.” She gave her a ‘how’s that’ look, rather impressed with herself.

Her efforts, however, produced only another enigmatic, “Better.”

Jennifer rolled her eyes, sighed “Right,” then caught her lower lip between her teeth for a long moment before saying softly, “Aaaand I would go on but I’m suddenly having an incredibly difficult time concentrating on anything other than the fact that you are inches away from me and all I really want to do is–”

Resa kissed her. Hard. For a very long time. And that, quite frankly, was the end of the conversation…

 

* * * *

She reached up as high as she could, stretching her tender body from stem to stern, but even with her considerable height and the impressive length of her extension, she could not quite touch the shower’s ceiling so, with an indifferent shrug, she dropped her arms and instead took hold of the soap.

The water felt glorious against her neck and shoulders and Resa wasn’t the least surprised when she began to lather up that her senses detected the faint trace of lavender. She grinned. It figured that Jennifer Logan would have perfumed soap. It was so like her. As was most everything she’d seen of the house so far, which, truth be told, wasn’t very much at all. Oh, Jennifer had made an initial go upon their arrival last night of giving Resa a proper tour of her newly purchased Hollywood Hills home, but that hadn’t lasted very long. Other interests had quickly taken precedence.

Ah, well. Resa hadn’t really been paying much attention anyway, the distraction of Jennifer’s presence being far too great. And besides, there would be time for such details later, she reasoned, then paused at the underlying significance that lurked behind such a innocent thought.

Time. Later. Two simple words that meant consideration for the future, for her future and her mind fairly reeled at the extraordinary implication. A ripple of uncertainty rolled through her but her heart continued to beat out a steady tattoo of conviction that ultimately quieted any momentary panic.

Yes, she told herself calmly. Yes, there will be a future. A real one filled with possibility and one that will include Jennifer.

She became aware of the smile that played across the whole of her face and knew it had probably been there for quite some time, as it would remain for some time to come. And why not? Didn’t she deserve to be happy, just a little? It was such a rare juncture at which she now stood, the whole world stretched before her and the perfect companion for the journey by her side. Extraordinary.

Jennifer’s image appeared before her mind’s eye as it had so many times since their first meeting, only this time it was accompanied by a swell of ebullience that she had never before experienced. Was this pure happiness? Was this the emotion that had inspired poems and songs and countless other forms of expression from an even greater number of creative souls across the ages? Ha! Well, no wonder.

Her soapy hands glided over areas left particularly sensitive to the touch after the activities of last night — and this morning — and she grinned anew. Jennifer Logan may have been a novice at the art of lovemaking but she was a damn quick study. Gotta love that.

A few minutes later, Resa stepped out of the shower and grabbed a cream-colored cotton towel left hanging over one of the rods and as she vigorously dried her long, dark hair, she allowed her gaze to drift over the magnificent master bathroom.

Man, I’ve seen whole apartments smaller than this, she marveled, taking note of the fine Italian tiling and porcelain sink that sat surrounded by a subtle marble countertop. No expense was spared. That book must have sold even better than I realized.

Ahhh, the book.

She chuckled a little at the thought and wondered what the reaction had been down on the farm when the Logan clan read that. Oh, sure, Jennifer had left just enough out for things to be ambiguous but she’d also included more than enough to make things interesting. Very interesting.

And inspiring. At least where Resa was concerned. After all, hadn’t Jennifer’s book been the very motivation for her to go to the literary group discussion only the night before? Funny how that had worked out.

Resa had bought Jennifer’s novel the moment she’d seen it on display in the bookstore window, which she’d been passing without second thought on her way to some mundane errand that ended up never being accomplished. But, as it turned out, she hadn’t mustered the courage to actually read beyond the jacket cover until many months later when she’d seen the event flyer with Jennifer’s picture tacked up on one of the bulletin boards at work.

That night she’d gone home to her small, isolated, near-barren apartment and found within herself the fortitude to go to the book and open it to the first page. She’d been hooked from the initial sentence; her eyes devouring each and every word as she was transported back to relive the chaotic and electrifying events of their time together as if they were happening anew.

When she finally set the book aside, the gray light of dawn was peeking in through her dirty window and her body was throbbing from not having changed its position in countless hours. But more than anything she felt an ache of longing inside her chest that would not go away and she came to the conclusion that she had to see Jennifer.

It went against every vow she’d made to herself and defied every form of logic but there really was no reasoning to be found on the subject. Suddenly, through no action taken on her own part, she knew exactly where Jennifer Logan was going to be at a specific time and that had been, for her, too great a temptation to resist.

And so she had gone to the bookstore, intending to catch a mere glimpse from afar and then go home. Only things hadn’t quite worked out that way. No, not at all.

Resa hung the towel back over the railing, feeling a tinge of pride that she remembered to tidy up after herself (though apparently she remained unaware she was leaving several nice puddles all over the floor), and walked naked into the bedroom whereupon her eyes caught sight of a small stack of clothes laid out for her at the foot of the as yet unmade bed (really, what was the point?).

She quickly dressed in the large, man’s, light blue Oxford shirt (another overlooked item from one of the Logan Boys perhaps?) and a very familiar pair of black, cut-off sweat shorts. She then sat upon the edge of the bed and bent over with the intention of putting on the white ankle socks but a sight brought her up short instead. A lump grew thick in her throat and the first flicker of something less than contentment darkened her brow.

Her scars. They were merciless in the morning’s light as they stretched along her right arm and both her feet, traveling well into her calves, in vivid contrast to her healthy skin. The pain had been excruciating to which the twists and discoloration bore silent witness, but she hadn’t really given much thought to them. There had been no real call to do so.

Until now.

She clenched her jaw and briefly closed her eyes, her concentration inward until the gentle voice inquired to her from the doorway,

“How did it happen?”

Resa glanced up into somber eyes. For an instant she had the urge to hide her old wounds from view but knew that was pointless. Jennifer already knew of them, had touched and caressed her marred arm both last night and that very morning. But she had yet to see her feet…and they were by far the worst part of her injuries.

Well, here they are, she thought resolutely. No going back now.

Resa cleared her throat and slowly set the socks aside, allowing the ravages of her flesh to be on full and prominent display. She hated the nervousness that sprang within her but was powerless to suppress it and she watched Jennifer’s eyes closely as they were drawn downward, noting the shimmer of pain in their depths.

But not pity.

To say Resa was immeasurably relieved that there wasn’t the slightest trace of pity to be found in her companion’s eyes would be a gross understatement. Sorrow and compassion she could handle, indeed she expected no less from one as tenderhearted as Jennifer but pity, that was the one thing that Resa could never bear.

“Won’t you tell me?” Jennifer asked softly, coming fully into the room.

Resa noted the slight hesitation in the younger woman’s step and reached out to her as a means of reassurance. Jennifer immediately took the proffered hand but rather than sit beside her on the bed as Resa expected, she instead knelt on the floor, soft green gaze raised in silent plea.

Resa smiled, then squeezed the fingers still within her grasp.

“You know I went to Alfons’.” It was more of a statement than a question but Jennifer nodded nonetheless. “And you know there was a fire.”

“Yes.” The fingers of her fee hand gently traced the scars on Resa’s left ankle. “That’s where you got these?”

Resa nodded.

“Were they as painful as they look?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

“Yes.” There was no thought of concealing the truth, not from her.

Jennifer was silent a long moment, then she leaned over to lay a soft kiss upon the edge where the unmarred skin stopped the scarring began.

“Tell me,” she entreated and this Resa could not refuse.

…below her the fire rages out of control. She sees it growing with each gust of wind until it is eating up the side of the house and the ground between them and the nearby pool. She can feel the heat shoot up her bare feet, legs and back and she grits her teeth against the pain.

Alfons strikes out at her a couple times with the heels of his boots, hitting her chest with brutal desperation but she does not let go of her hold.

He ceases his efforts to kick her free and begins to pull himself — and by default her — up, his powerful arms bulging against the restrictions of his jacket.

Her eyes shift and fasten on the gun muzzle that just peeks over the side.

She reaches behind her and draws out the automatic pistol she has earlier tucked into the back of her jeans and points it up at his head, her mind whirling as she assesses the situation from every angle.

If she allows him to continue to pull himself upward he can, and likely will, go for the gun as soon as it is within his reach. And he will shoot her, of this she is certain. She does not care how much he professes to need her, to obsess about her, to want her back. This is about life and death. His life and his potential death, and in his mind she has no doubt that takes precedence over all else. She is literally weighing him down, dragging at him and robbing from him the precious seconds required to escape.

But, if she shoots him now, before they reach the top, then they will both fall and while the drop itself isn’t necessarily enough to kill them outright, the fire below is another matter.

Either way, it does not look good for her.

But, then she realizes with a sudden calmness and inner serenity, that it has long ago stopped being about her and her needs. It goes beyond that. Well beyond anything she has ever before understood or thought possible of or for herself. This moment reaches into the core of her soul and touches her heart and makes her believe in something greater, something deeper. And with the purity of love, she knows what she has to do. To protect Jennifer, she will give everything.

Tears fill her eyes, tears for what might have been….

Alfons pulls his chest up over the side.

…what could have been…

He reaches out for the gun.

…what should have been…

Grabs it.

…yet cannot be.

And swings it down in her direction.

Only one of them pulls the trigger.

His head whips back as the bullet tears through his brain and instantly his hold on the side of the building is no more.

Resa closes her eyes and feels herself begin to fall at once, feels the indescribable heat as it races up to greet her, robbing her of her ability to see or breathe or hear beyond the inferno’s ferocious roar.

For an instant she experiences the strangest sense of being outside her body, watching from a safe, almost passive distance as she plunges into the baptismal flames and she wonders why it does not hurt more. But perhaps, she muses with detachment, she is already dead and has moved beyond the pain.

Then her right shoulder comes in unexpected contact with some immovable object — the lip of the first floor roof — and the direction of her descent suddenly and most decidedly shifts. She feels all remaining air be driven out of her lungs and a searing agony as her arm abruptly dislocates. Her head whacks into the corner of the house and she goes momentarily numb.

Only bits and pieces of clarity follow, tiny snips of images and information as her sensibilities struggle to process everything even as new data assaults her in rapid-fire succession. Cool air. Noise. Sirens. Her body landing, hard but not as hard as she would have expected, if she could remember what it is she expected at all. The ground. Grass. Leaves. Rocks. The taste of dirt. The smell of burning. Pain. Too much pain. Her clothes. Fire. Her clothes on fire.

Instinct takes command even as coherent thought is out of the question. The second her body makes contact with the earth she knows she needs to roll in order to diffuse the force of impact and so roll she does. She has already covered her face with her hands and rolls and rolls and somewhere along the way the fleeting possibility that she might inadvertently be tumbling back into the fire somehow manages to amuse her.

Then a fractionalized sensation — falling again — and she finds she is submersed in cold water. The shock of moving so swiftly from one extreme to the next is staggering and it is only due to the fact that the fall has rendered her incapable of breathing that she fails to inhale.

She opens her eyes and sees curious, warped, aquamarine images dance before her. Twisted impressions, reflections, and perception war within her mind until the bits and pieces slip, as if parts of a puzzle, into their rightful place and the picture becomes almost whole. She has fallen into the pool.

But more important than that, most important of all is the fact that she is alive. After everything she, somehow, is still alive…and she finds it utterly confounding.

Her body continues its gentle descent until it comes to rest upon the floor of the pool’s deep end and it is there she lies for untold seconds, confused though oddly unafraid. The sounds around her are, like everything else, distorted and work to form an exquisite other-worldlyness that totally envelopes her.

She does not want to move, instead welcoming the strangely comforting pressure of the water as it pushes in at her from all angles and tenderly rocks her upon invisible waves.

All in all the fall, impact, and immersion has lasted less than ten seconds. Ten remarkable seconds in which she has gone from certain death to a rather incredulous life…

‘I’m not dead,’ she marvels. ‘I. Am not. Dead…’

She closes her eyes as she allows the reality to trickle into her very being. Her heart slams against the restrictions of her chest and her brain cries out, ‘But why? Why when I should be for so many reasons well beyond the understandable danger I just faced? When I prepared for it and deserve no less, why am I not dead?’

There is no answer forthcoming and it is here that the numbness of only moments ago wears off. Now every part of her body that mere seconds earlier was cocooned in shock seems to scream out at once and she attempts to take stock of her circumstance.

She feels the scorching of her skin along the bottoms of her feet and along her lower legs, matched by the throb along her right hand and wrist and even along the back of her head. She feels what is most assuredly broken ribs along her left back and the distress in her dislocated shoulder.

But most of all she experiences the searing insistence of her lungs to draw in air.

Immediately.

Yet she remains where she is as a thought buzzes around the periphery of her consciousness, a perverse yet provoking possibility that slowly takes hold of her jumbled sense of self.

‘I could just lie here,’ she thinks, struggling to ignore her body’s natural desperation to go to the surface. ‘If I lie here, I will black out and I will drown and all will be as it should.’

A convulsion wracks her and a ringing fills her ears but she maintains her position at the bottom of the pool, arms spread out from her side and her hair drifting around her face like a crown.

‘I don’t deserve to live. My actions don’t merit the benevolence of life. I have the blood of so many on my hands…even now…how can I justify living? Who in their right mind would forgive me? Who?’

To that silent question appears an image that so catches Resa by surprise she gasps…

…and begins to choke on the water that fills her lungs.

Her body reflexively spasms and suddenly all thought of indirect suicide leaves her. She pushes against the concrete bottom and kicks up in a near frenzy, swimming upwards until she breaks the surface to draw in a huge breath of life-giving air..

Resa paused as Jennifer’s grip tightened on her fingers, the younger woman’s face having grown taut with distress. After a beat, eyes the color of a warm tropical bay raised up to search deep into her own.

“What did you see?” she asked, her voice hoarse. “What was the image?”

Resa swallowed, finding that as much as she trusted this woman, and she trusted her unconditionally, she was not the sort of person for whom full disclosure came with ease. It was difficult for her (hadn’t she spent her life avoiding such a thing?) but she would keep the vow she made to herself, especially when it left her vulnerable to such an intense degree.

She reached out to run her fingers through Jennifer’s short, blonde hair, enjoying the silky texture against her palm.

“You,” she said simply. “I saw you.”

Her coughs are uncontrollable, the spasms of her body delivering a whole host of pain from her varied injuries. Some water gets in her mouth and goes down the wrong way, bringing on a new fit but after a few moments she regains enough composure to swim to the side of the pool and to awkwardly climb out.

She lies on the cement, wet and in a kaleidoscope of misery, and assesses her situation. She has burns that need to be taken care of as well as broken and/or dislocated bones elsewhere. Her head hurts from where she whacked it along the building during her fall. And she is slightly dizzy from being too long in the pool.

Still, all things considered, it could be worse: She could have failed in her overall objective but, by the grace of she knows not who, she has not.

An illogical exultation wells within her as she realizes that at long last Jennifer is safe. In this alone she has succeeded for Jennifer Logan will no longer have to fear for her life from the likes of Alfons Vega or his men, will not have to look over her shoulder at every turn as she waits for them to come after her as they most assuredly would have had Resa not taken action.

She thinks of Jennifer, of the life that lies ahead for her now and smiles.

The quiet laid heavily in the room.

Jennifer no longer met Resa’s eyes, instead resting her cheek upon the older woman’s right knee as her gaze looked upon nothing in particular. Resa sensed her agitation but there was nothing she could do. What’s done was done and the past could not be altered.

“I-I don’t know how I feel about all this,” Jennifer said in a voice barely above a whisper. “I mean, I know you did what you had to do to defend yourself but…I don’t know how I feel about being the reason those men died.”

Resa’s hand stilled its caress. “You aren’t the reason,” she tried to explain, the flower of apprehension slowly blossoming in her stomach. “They chose to enter that world. They chose to hurt other people and to work for someone who had no soul, who would have killed you and countless other people like you if given the chance.”

Jennifer nodded, her expression difficult to read. “I know that. I do…in theory… But when I think about the reality of my part in all that happened –”

“You’re part was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing more. You went somewhere to help someone, that’s all. And you got caught up in a nightmare situation that you are not to blame for.”

“But–”

“No. No buts. Listen to me.” She slid off the bed to sit opposite Jennifer on the hardwood floor. “No one who died that night was innocent. They were adults who willingly entered into a corrupt and criminal situation because they thought they could better themselves by doing so. They were killers. Each of them. Trust me, I know.”

Jennifer raised her gaze. “I do trust you, Resa. Implicitly. And I pretty much figured out what happened beforehand. And why.” She swallowed hard, struggling valiantly to discipline her emotions but her lower lip trembled all the same. “It’s just hearing it confirmed…” She shook her head, confused. “I don’t know… It hurts.”

Resa drew back, her body newly stiff with tension, and looked away.

Of course it hurt. No matter how much she had changed from the naïve college girl to now, there sill existed within Jennifer the glow of humanity that kept her such a wonderfully unique woman and Resa hoped she never lost that. But it was also that same trait that would make it difficult for her to fully reconcile the extreme actions Resa had taken against Alfons and his men. Ahh, the hidden dangers of full disclosure and the little landmines existed within.

Resa drew away from Jennifer, pulling her legs up to her chest and hugged her arms around her knees in an unconsciously protective gesture as she regarded the younger woman before her.

“Believe me when I tell you that I wish there had been a viable alternative to what happened that night. And if there had been I would have taken it. But there wasn’t. I swear.”

She stopped when sadness invaded her heart and she dropped her eyes. For several moments neither spoke and to Resa the silence was damning. She could only imagine what Jennifer must think of her, how horrified she surely must be.

After nearly a full minute of deafening quiet, Resa chanced a glance up only to find Jennifer watching her with a poignant expression, her gentle face echoing the slightest trace of fear, which a troubled Resa immediately mistook as fear of her. It cut through her heart and left her bleeding.

She stood at once.

But Jennifer, though startled, was quick. She rose up to take hold of the taller woman by the arm and waist, her eyes now radiating alarm.

“No!” Jennifer said, holding on tight. “No, you are not going anywhere.”

“Why have me around?”

“Because I love you.”

She shook her dark head. “You fear me. I saw it in your eyes. I’m still the ruthless murderer I always have been and you have just now realized it.” She tried to pull away. “Alfons was right. People don’t change.”

“Bullshit!” Jennifer raged and tightened her hold. “Now, you listen to me, Theresa I-just-realized-I-don’t-know-your-middle-name Gustavez, and you listen well.” Resa stopped her admittedly feeble attempts to escape but did not move to lower her defenses. Jennifer took a step closer until barely any room separated them and Resa could see tiny flecks of blue and gold in her irises. “I am not now, nor have I ever been, afraid of you. Afraid for you, yes. Afraid you’ll do something insane that could endanger your wellbeing, you bet. But genuinely afraid of you? Never.” She clutched the soft cotton of the black sweat shorts as she transferred the hand from Resa’s arm to the side of the taller woman’s face. “What you saw just now was me thinking about how terrifying it must have been for you to go through that horror all alone and how desperately I wished you hadn’t had to do it. Especially since I know you did it for me. Jesus, Resa, you could have died I don’t know how many times in all of that and for the last year and a half I thought you had! I mean, there’s a part of me that’s still trying to come to grips with the fact that you’re even alive, that you didn’t die trying to keep me safe. That you’re here…”

Resa lowered her eyes and though she did not also completely lower the familiar protective wall that she carried with her at all times, neither did she make another move to leave.

Jennifer relaxed, ever so slightly and angled her head until she forced Resa to meet her eyes.

“Now, about what happened that night…to those men and to you, yes, I’m disturbed. I don’t know how not to be. Can’t you…” A frustrated sigh escaped her lips. “Can’t you explain it to me somehow?”

Resa shook her head. “No. I can’t” A sadness and inevitability filled her. “How can you possibly hope to understand something like this? You don’t speak the language of violence and hatred and I hope to God you never do. I wish I didn’t.” Her voice was quiet but firm, refusing to sugarcoat the truth. “That night I killed, but not just for you. I killed for Martin and for Malik Powell and for all the nameless, faceless people that I will never know whose death was on the hands of a truly evil man and though I regret the circumstance, I do not regret the result. You and others are safe and for that I am glad.” She sighed, a weariness that went deep to the bone settled over her. “But I don’t expect you to understand…I almost don’t want you to.”

Jennifer was silent for what felt like an eternity but was in reality only a handful of seconds before her tender voice spoke with great care.

“Well, then. I’ll just have to trust you won’t I?” She raised her chin in defiance, the faintest trace of amusement adorning her lips. “And don’t think I don’t see you there, with all those defenses of yours up, waiting for me to reject you over this.” Resa blinked, surprised as much by the words as the accompanying prodding by Jennifer’s index finger into her shoulder. “I’m afraid you’re just going to have to be disappointed because it’s not going to happen. I’m here, darlin’.” A tiny moment of insecurity. “As long as you’ll have me.”

Resa nearly laughed at that, feeling momentarily light-headed with relief then let her gaze raked over the lovely curves of the face opposite her.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she repeated with resolution.

A single dark brow arched deliberately “That could be a while.”

Jennifer’s smile was dazzling. “I sincerely hope so,” she said with an emphatic nod. “Now, I originally came up here to tell you that I have a feast of a breakfast downstairs, which is rapidly getting cold but if you’re even half as hungry as I am, you won’t care either. Can I interest you?”

“Oh, I’m interested all right.”

“Good.”

She took up Resa’s much larger hand into her own to drag her in the direction of the stairs.

But Resa didn’t budge. Instead she pulled Jennifer back into her embrace and covered her mouth with her own in a kiss that seemed to be the most natural thing in the world, a kiss intended to be sweet and reaffirming, a way to say thank you and for a moment she was content. But then she felt Jennifer’s fingers curl against the back of her head and her mouth open intimately against Resa’s own and all thought of contentment went right out the window, replaced instead by blinding sensation. Bending her knees a little Resa wrapped her arms around the smaller woman’s back and lifted her off the ground, effectively crushing Jennifer to her. Two long strides and they were both lying upon the yet to be made up bed. Resa rolled over until her body was resting atop the blonde, making an effort to keep herself slightly elevated so as not to inflict her full weight. But then Jennifer wrapped one leg over Resa’s hip to forcibly draw her down until there was no space separating them. Their lips were willing, warm and seeking and their senses pounded with awareness of each other. She felt Jennifer’s hands against her back, felt a tingle as one hand slid lower and lower until it reached the base of her spine only to slide onto her hip.

Resa pushed herself away just far enough to meet Jennifer’s heavy-lidded gaze.

“Breakfast is going to get a whole lot colder,” she warned in a throaty voice.

Jennifer just smiled languidly and reached up to pull the taller woman back down again.

* * * *

The mid-morning sun of an unusually warm December bathed the two women as they sat upon the outdoor terrace, leaving them soaked in good cheer. The remains of their most impressive feast laid strewn about, despite the considerable dent they had managed to make in it.

Jennifer tore the last of the Pillsbury orange Danish rolls in half and offered the other piece to Resa who took it though she had but moments ago professed her appetite fully assuaged.

“Sister Stephnie is expecting her first child late spring,” she informed her companion.

A single dark brow arched. “Isn’t that kind of against the rules?”

The blonde grinned. “She left the order. Got married six months ago.”

“To a certain construction worker maybe?”

“Yes, ma’am.” She couldn’t stifle a giggle. “I gotta say, the wedding was pretty surreal. One half of the church was filled with these rough and rugged macho men and the other half was teeming with nuns.”

“Guess no one hooked up afterwards.”

“Uh, no. And they ended up just handing the bouquet to me by default since I was the only female there who hadn’t taken the vow of celibacy.”

“Handy.” Hooded blue eyes raked her over. “Bet you got asked out a lot.”

“Yeah, but I don’t date nuns,” she teased and Resa shared her smile. “Besides,” she continued, a shade more serious. “There was no way I could be with anyone else.”

Resa glanced down for a moment, then pushed her plate away.

“So, what do you hear from the Padre?” she asked.

“He’s in a suburb of Lincoln, Nebraska. I think that pretty much speaks for itself.”

“Is he happy?”

“He’s always happy if he’s able to help people, which he is.” She gave Resa a measured look. “He misses you.”

Resa was silent for several moments then nodded her head a little. “I miss him, too,” she admitted quietly.

“Maybe you should call him.”

“Maybe you could call him first, tell him…”

“That you’re alive?” She nodded. “Okay.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Of course, there’s a price for that.”

“Oh yeah?”

Jennifer nodded. “You gotta tell me the rest of your story about where you’ve been this whole time.”

“What makes you think there’s a story to be told.”

“Because with you there’s always a story to be told.”

“Yeah, well, what can I say? I’m just lucky that way.”

“So?”

“So…” she drawled back.

“You are going to tell me, right?”

“Yeah.”

A beat. “Today?”

A grin. “Yeah.”

“Cool.”

Jennifer smiled, quite happy with herself and, content not to push the issue for now. She let her eyes stray from the woman at her side for the first time since their very late breakfast began.

The kitchen terrace was tucked in the famed hills of Hollywood where homes were in even greater abundance than the natural (and always flammable) scrub bush. The ever-present wind, sometimes gentle but as often not, lifted the white linen of Jennifer’s sleeveless shirt off her tanned skin.

She really loved her house. It had once belonged to some old movie star from long ago, or so the realtor had claimed when she was trying to drive home the sale and it might actually have been true but that hadn’t been why Jennifer had decided to buy the place. She’d taken it as much for the view as anything else, finding the sight of Los Angeles laid out before her to be wondrous, especially at night where the city lights could be awesome for one who had grown up in the likes of Lawrence, Kansas. The fact that it was ‘chic’ and ‘hip’ and Drew Barrymore was her neighbor a few homes down meant nothing to her. It was all about the view and the feelings that it inspired deep within her.

She turned a casual glance at Resa through coy lashes and watched as the dark-haired woman leaned her head against the back of her chair, eyes closed, seemingly content to drink in the languid splendor of the moment. It reminded her of that time, so long ago, when the former gang leader had unexpectedly dropped her defenses and sung along with the car’s radio. That simple instance had been, for Jennifer, thoroughly enchanting and while likely not the moment in which she’d fallen in love, it was the instant she recognized it to be thoroughly a irrevocable condition.

Actually, truth be told, Jennifer could not pinpoint the exact occasion when her love for Resa had taken root, and it was something about which she’d given a great deal of thought, but try as she might, she could not place her finger on it. Rather it was as if she’d always been in love with her and had only been waiting for the time when they could at long last meet. And while such a notion was whimsical and romantic to a quixotic degree, it was true nevertheless. Had anyone other than herself been thinking with such mawkish sentiment she would have dismissed them as too fanciful for words. But she could not dismiss her own feelings nor did she want to. They were too enjoyable.

Her eyes traveled freely over Resa’s face and body until they ventured to where the other woman’s hands laid interlocked across her taut abdomen. A tiny knot formed in her chest as she recalled the Resa’s words from earlier as she recounted in her almost dispassionate way the events of that horrible night…

She shuddered inwardly.

While Jennifer recognized it was likely true she may never understand in full the reason for the outcome and why death had to be the course of action, she did know that the motive behind them had been pure and somehow that was enough for her. She only wished there was a way to effectively convey this acceptance to Resa so that she believed it without pause but that was something that would only come with time and Jennifer had to respect the former gang leader’s past in all its complexity if they were going to make a life together. Which was her intention.

It was a miracle, really, that they had gotten as far as they had in such a short amount of time and she would have to learn patience when prickly scenes like the one earlier in her bedroom sprouted between them. Life would not always be as blissful as it was at this very moment, of that she was quite sure, but as long as they held onto the underlying love that was their foundation then she was confident they could survive. Now if only she could convince Resa.

“I can hear you from here,” came the low murmur, though she did not bother to open her eyes or barely move her lips.

Jennifer grinned. “Oh, really? And what do you hear?”

“The constant whirl of your brain as it goes racing around some new thought.” She tipped her head to the side and cracked open her left eye. “What’s on your mind?”

Jennifer decided to avoid telling her the precise contents of her musings and instead said, “I was wondering what you had planned for today.”

Resa raised her arms above her head to stretch a bit. “Well,” she said as she let out a sigh. “I haven’t really given it much thought. As of last night any and all plans I may have had went right out the window.” The smile she gave was downright raffish. “Why? You have any suggestions?”

Jennifer felt the first tingle of a blush begin to creep up her neck and she suddenly found the inlaid pattern of the wrought iron tabletop terribly engrossing.

“Um, well, if you weren’t busy…or anything…” She nervously tucked a short strand of hair over her ear. “I figured you could maybe hang here for, you know…ever.”

She’d meant to say “a while” but somehow her subconscious pulled a fast one while she wasn’t looking and left her flummoxed. The instant the last word tumbled unexpectedly out of her mouth she bit down on her lower lip and wished she could reach out to grab it back somehow. But she couldn’t. It was, as they say, ‘out there’ and there wasn’t a damn thing she could to do get it back. The heated flush that came with Jennifer’s mortification seemed to start at the tips of her ears and encompass her entire body leaving her searching for the nearest rock under which to climb. Of all the presumptuous things she could have…what was she thinking? Well, besides that.

“God you’re cute when you blush,” Resa chuckled.

“Am I blushing?” she asked needlessly.

“Like a bride,” Resa affirmed then threw her head back and laughed at Jennifer’s utterly abashed expression.

“Well…” the younger woman began then ducked her head in embarrassment. “This is all kind of new for me. I mean, I just, um, I’ve never…felt like this about anybody before…” She couldn’t look up. “…and I don’t know what a person should normally say or do or even feel so I’m kind of just saying and doing exactly what I feel. Which is probably pretty foolish.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve been brought up to behave more, well, demure.”

“Don’t you think it’s a little late for that at this point?” Her voice was laden with irony.

“Oh, my God, you are so going to make me blush even more!”

She tipped her head to one side in contemplation. “I don’t think you can, actually.”

Jennifer dropped her head to her folded arms as they lay across the breakfast table and groaned.

“As it so happens,” Resa continued after a pause. “I’m pretty new at all this, too.”

Jennifer peeked up over her forearms. “Oh, please,” she scoffed.

“No, not at sex. That I know just fine.”

“I’m aware.”

“Yeah?” she asked, clearly pleased.

“Hello, you were there.”

“What? You could have been faking,” she pointed out though her attitude conveyed she believed that to be a remote possibility.

“I was so not faking.” A troublesome thought occurred to her and blonde eyebrows drew forward in a tiny frown. “Were you?”

“No…but we could always give it another go if you want to be absolutely certain.” She pierced her with a suggestive smile and Jennifer somehow found it within herself to blush anew.

“Aren’t you even the slightest bit tired?”

“Not really. Are you?”

“Well…yeah. I mean, I’m in pretty good shape–”

“You’re in great shape,” Resa interrupted, eyes raking over the younger woman.

“Thanks but, point of order, if you keep saying things like that and looking at me like you’re looking at me right now, I am never going to be able to form a coherent sentence again.”

“Sorry. Please continue. You’re in great shape…”

“…but after last night–”

“And this morning.”

“And this morning, I’m going to be a wreck all day.”

“Why?”

“Why? Why? Because in the past almost twenty five years of my life I’ve had exactly two orgasms, which, let me tell you, leaves a whole bunch of time to recover in between but in the past fifteen hours, I’ve had four.”

Resa frowned. “Is that all?”

“Is that all?” she repeated incredulously.

“Yeah. I thought you had more than that.”

Jennifer shook her head. “I have never had a conversation like this before.”

“You and what’s his name–”

“Curtis.”

“– didn’t talk?”

“Not about things like this.”

“Maybe that was your problem.”

“No, I think his ridiculous love for building model cars came in way above this in terms of our problem hierarchy. And the fact that he wore socks to bed. I hate that.”

“Uh-huh. Memo to self, ‘no socks.’”

Jennifer laughed, then shook her head, ridiculously delighted and chagrined and fascinated all at the same time. What a constant surprise Resa was, so infinitely multi-faceted. And how lucky am I that she wants to be with me?

So very lucky indeed…

She reached out a bare foot to gently nudge the exposed side of Resa’s muscular thigh. “You know, you were saying something earlier about all of this being new for you too.”

Eyes so light they seemed nearly transparent narrowed suspiciously. “You wouldn’t happen to be changing the subject would you?”

“Most definitely.”

“Subtle.”

“Thanks. Please continue.”

Resa cleared her throat. “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted–” Jennifer rolled her eyes. “This situation is new for me, too.” A surge of discomfort seemed to come over the dark-haired woman and she glanced away, her body stiffening slightly. “After all I’ve never been…”

When her words trailed off Jennifer frowned. “With a woman?” she queried, trying to be helpful but that just seemed to make Resa a smidge more fidgety.

“Ah, no. That’s not quite what I was going to say.”
“Oh.”

Resa cleared her throat again, her agitation growing by leaps and bounds and Jennifer had the urge to tease her but sensibly refrained.

“I’ve never actually…well, made love before. Just, um, you know…had…sex.” She glanced up, highly embarrassed and utterly exposed, two sentiments with which Jennifer could relate all too well. “But last night…I suppose in a way, last night was sort of like…my first time…too…” Her words faded off and now it was her turn to blush, something Jennifer found so thoroughly endearing that she was won over yet again.

Her heart fairly bursting, she rose from her chair and moved to sit in Resa’s lap, wrapping her arms around broad shoulders and enjoying the warmth of the other woman’s body against her own. She kissed her forehead and leaned her cheek against the top of the Resa’s dark head, whispering, “Thank you for telling me.”

Resa hugged her around the waist, pressing her face into the curve of Jennifer’s neck. She could feel tiny trembles in the former gang leader’s body and closed her eyes at the marvelous mix of emotion and sensation that crested over her.

“And, Jennifer,” she said, her voice low, “I don’t know what you have planned for today, but, just so we’re clear…” Resa drew away and looked into her eyes, all jocularity absent, replaced instead by a glorious sincerity as she whispered, “…’ever’ is good for me, too.”

A tiny hiccup of surprise rose and caught in the back of the younger woman’s throat as tears filled her eyes and her chest fairly quaked with a sweet, sweet ache. “Really?” she croaked, blinking to clear her vision.

Resa nodded.

She bent down to press a kiss to Resa’s lips, then another to her cheek, and a third to her left temple before she closed her eyes and cuddled closer.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Jennifer’s gaze fell lazily over their bodies, making idle note of the strength in the arm wrapped around her middle and indulging in the luxury of simply being together. Her fingertips lightly played with the fabric of Resa’s borrowed Oxford shirt.

“You know,” she murmured. “Since it appears you’ll be staying here at least another day or so, we should think about getting you something to wear. Besides my brothers’ rejects, that is.”

“I rather like your brothers’ rejects.” She laid a whisper of a kiss at the base of Jennifer’s throat. “They’re easily shed.”

Jennifer nearly lost her train of thought. “Yes, well, while that is an advantage, I’ll grant you, they’ve unfortunately left a very limited number of items and eventually you’re going to want to wear some of your own clothes.”

Resa sighed, the warmth of her breath fluttering across Jennifer’s neck and chest. “I suppose that’s true.” She dropped her head back against the chair and the sunshine gleamed across her upturned face. “We could head over to my apartment later today, pick up some things.”

“Excellent idea.” She frowned in curiosity. “Where is your apartment anyhow?”

“Downtown.”

Her eyes nearly bugged out. “You live Downtown?” Resa nodded. “Like, a few miles away from me?”

“Yeah.”

“The whole time you were gone?”

“More or less.”

Jennifer just stared at her, mouth agape.

“What?” Resa queried.

“I can’t believe you were this close to me all the while I was…” She swatted her on the shoulder with clear annoyance.

“Owe!” Resa frowned in confusion. “What was that for?”

“For making me think you were dead for a year and a half so you could play the martyr for my own good while you were practically in spitting distance the whole time.”

“Uh-huh.” A dark brow arched. “Feel better?”

She considered this. “Yes, actually. I do.”

“Good. Don’t do that again.”

“Or else…?”

“Or else I’ll break out that dark side you’ve heard so much about,” she growled, though there was an obvious twinkle of mischief lurking in her eyes.

Jennifer grinned. “That could prove fun.”

“Oh, ya think?”

“Yeah. You could play the big, bad conqueror and I’ll be the feisty peasant girl who stands up to your evil ways and wins your heart.”

“Oh, please.”

“Then we can have mind-blowing sex.”

“On second thought…”

Jennifer laughed and Resa grinned, eyes dancing with mirth for several moments until they softened into a more reflexive expression. She reached up to cup the curve of Jennifer’s jaw.

“I’ve missed you, you know,” she said, allowing her thumb to barely brush against her cheek. “I don’t think I laughed the entire time we were apart. Not like this.”

Jennifer reached up to hold the hand in place and met Resa’s gaze with a steady, probing one of her own.

“What did you do while we were apart?” Her words were feather light, disguising how very much she wanted to know the answer.

Resa sighed heavily. “Existed mainly. Waited…thought about you.”

Jennifer’s fingers wrapped around the hand pressed against her cheek and drew it down against her heart.

“I want to know everything, Resa,” she said with conviction. “Please.”

 

She hears the sirens and knows the emergency vehicles are already on Alfons’ property. This raises a question she has at no time before thought reasonable to consider for she most assuredly did not expect to be in this position, did not anticipate being alive at the end of the night.

But now that she is alive, she is faced with a dilemma: Should she lie here and await her inevitable capture or should she try to leave? ‘What,’ she wonders, ‘is the right thing to do?’

Her immediate, gut instinct is for her to flee but she considers the selfishness of this response. After all, she knows quite well the barbaric ordeal of prison and is under no illusion about harboring a desire to return. It was an unmitigated hell and she despised it, no matter what positive results it may have rendered within her.

I should stand and take responsibility for my actions, she thinks. I have done this, caused this. I should be held accountable.

‘But what will that solve?’ a part of her asks and she realizes quite simply, nothing. It will solve nothing. Indeed it will only cause more pain.

Pain for whom?

‘Pain for me,’ she silently acknowledges, ‘but pain for Jennifer too.’

The sirens grow closer.

Deep in her heart she ponders this realization and knows it to be true.

If she goes back to prison then Jennifer Logan will insist in her loyal and selfless way on standing by her side, being with her as a means of support throughout. Her head hurts at the thought. The girl, the beautiful girl who for reasons known only to the stars above has professed her love, will stagnate at a time when by all rights she should be flourishing. Once again, like a sickening refrain, it will be Resa’s fault.

‘No,’ she thinks, shaking her head lightly. ‘I can’t allow that to happen. I won’t.’

Yet if she is going to avoid detection for any reason she cannot wait another second. She must act now.

Resa tries to rise from her supine position at the edge of the pool but cannot. Every muscle throbs, every fiber hurts. The bottoms of her feet flare up and she thinks that she has only once before experienced a pain this overwhelming, when she gave birth.

‘But,’ she resolves with determination, ‘I survived that, I can survive this, too.’

And so she steels her mind, marshals her psychological forces and slowly wills herself to sit up. And, wonder of wonders, she succeeds.

Her breaths come in quick, rapid succession but she remembers what Tony once taught her about inhaling and exhaling during labor and she uses that same rhythm now.

She somehow gets to a standing position, swaying against the dizzy spell that nearly overcomes her, then pushes the agony caused by her burns to the back of her mind and begins walking.

Her world becomes myopic, shifting to focus on the basics of motion as she places one foot in front of the other. She pushes from her mind the way in which every blade of grass is like a tiny needle piercing through her skin with each step that she takes.

‘Ignore the pain,’ she tells herself like a mantra. ‘Keep walking. Ignore the pain…’

She is well into the darkness of the surrounding property, past the point where light even from the burning home can reach her when the first two fire trucks arrive on the scene. Fortunately for her, their attention is on the mammoth task at hand and they do not bother to look around. She is on the verge of making her escape…

…if only she can organize her thoughts enough to determine a way over the wall.

It towers at least fifteen feet above her and has coiled, razor sharp wire running along its top like one would see in some World War Two stockade. The wall would be difficult for her to ascend even if her condition were not thoroughly battered. As is, however, such a task is impossible.

Thus she pushes onward.

In the shadows she limps, her hand lightly trailing the enormous concrete barrier as a means of keeping her direction fixed even as the world around her pitches about like the bow of a ship in a storm.

She breaths in and out, using every trick she knows to maintain consciousness…in and out…keep walking…in and out…ignore the pain…in and out…keep walking…

Suddenly her hand encounters space and she is made dimly aware of some sort of recess in the wall. She glances over, feeling the sweat break out along her brow and upper lip and her body starts to quiver.

It takes a moment, she has to blink several times in rapid succession to make sure she sees it correctly, but then she realizes she is at the rear of the property and the gap she has encountered is change in space to allow for a large, two- door entrance only yards from the actual garage. Though the postern is closed and her mind is muddled by the torture through which she is putting her body, she nonetheless recognizes a potential solution to her problem.

She would laugh at the simplicity of it but does not have the energy. Instead she stumbles in the direction of the garage itself, a long, wooden building with at least five wide doors (one for each of Alfons’ classic cars) to find all are closed.

It takes three strides but her legs feel as if they are made of rubber and she falls headfirst a few feet from the steps. The flare of pain from her dislocated shoulder nearly causes her to black out and a part of her wishes that she would.

‘Just end this fucking abuse already,’ she thinks, but then her mind clears enough to focus. She pulls herself along with her one relatively good arm until she is on the steps and then she reaches up to turn the brass door handle…

…only to find it locked. Locked! Dammit!

She cries out as hopelessness overwhelms her. She cannot get in and get to the remote that activates the main garage door, her last barrier to the outer world. On the other side of that door is her freedom, less than a dozen yards of space and a few inches of wood but it might as well be the Berlin Wall at the end of the Grand Canyon. This is an obstacle she cannot surmount.

Her hand drops from the doorknob and she closes her eyes in the face of such futility.

‘What now?’ she wonders but receives no reply. Only the sound of shouting that comes from the firefighters as they endeavor to bring the blaze under control.

The wind shifts and the thick, acrid smoke from the burning house is pushed in her direction. She coughs as her already raw lungs reject the soiled air, leaving her to gasp. She pulls the burnt collar of her black turtleneck up over her mouth and nose but the stench that lingers there, that of incinerated fabric, sweat and scorched flesh, nearly makes her gag.

The world before her begins to swim and she realizes she is teetering on the verge of passing out.

It is then that the first in a series of faint noises reaches her, noises that she slowly comes to realize signify more sirens and thus more emergency personnel.

She initially dismisses them as nothing more than background sounds. But a corner of her brain recognizes that they are coming from a different direction; they are coming from the other side of the garage door.

Thunk!

She opens her eyes, blinks and shifts to look back at the wooden doorway built within the wall.

Thunk!

She frowns. That sounds like…an ax?

Someone is breaking through? No, no, she is just imagining things… Yet just as she is about to dismiss this possibility she hears yet another ‘thunk’ followed by distinct reverberations coming from the closed doorway.

A fourth similar sound follows and then she hears the rattle of something metal hitting the ground. She realizes in this moment that some new emergency personnel are coming through those doors, bringing their trucks and tools to fight the fire from a new direction.

For a fraction of a second she experiences a twinkling of relief until she realizes that this means her presence is going to be detected as well.

She is lying a dozen feet away from the doorway, in plain sight and though there is no light directly upon her, she is nevertheless exposed for all to see.

She closes her eyes and drops her head a little. Once they find her it is going to be over. Everything. She will have to answer their questions and explain what she is doing here, in direct violation to her parole, but that is the least of her worries. She will also have to explain as well the nature behind her appearance here and though she understands that fighting Alfons Vega with violence was the only genuine solution, she knows without question that the authorities will be unable to officially see her view.

There is no doubt in her heart; she is going back to jail and there is nothing she can do about it but wait.

She swallows hard, ready to accept her fate and tries not to think about Jennifer.

Suddenly the doorway is thrust open and she braces herself for the inevitable.

Within seconds not one but two fire trucks enter the grounds followed by an ambulance and two police cars, all in a terrific rush to get to their destination, all focused on their task at hand with the supreme concentration of the trained professionals that they undoubtedly are…

…and all in an unexpected twist of fate, completely overlooking her in their haste.

It takes several beats for the reality to sink in that they did not see her. Though she is in full, conspicuous view and is clearly someone who is in need of assistance, they have succeeded in missing her completely. She never thought that possible.

And here she does laugh. Not much, mind you, for her wounds prevent too much amusement but she allows herself a little chuckle at the appearance of such good fortune just when all seemed lost.

She sits up a little, flinching at the pain and she glances after the retreating rush of emergency vehicles then to the still open doorway.

‘Don’t waste time gawking,’ she chides herself, ‘Or this chance will slip away.’

Right.

She pushes herself to a standing position, allowing a few extra seconds to get her legs to stop wobbling under her weight and then walks with deliberate steps out the open door.

Resa paused, perhaps lost in the reflection. A sudden gust of breeze billowed over them as they reclined on one of the chaises, having moved from the chair somewhere during the recount. Seconds ticked by until Jennifer, her barely concealed impatience getting the best of her, finally asked,

“Where did you go?”

She felt rather than heard Resa’s silent laugh against her ear. She snuggled closer, liking the sensation, one hand unconsciously slipping a bit under the edge of Resa’s untucked shirttails and enjoying the heat that lay beneath.

“To be honest, I don’t remember much,” Resa said, pulling the younger woman a little closer against her chest. “I know I wandered around for a while but I couldn’t tell you where. My mind was a fog. The first thing I clearly remember was being on a busy street and seeing a 7-11.”

 

She blinks twice and focuses on the lone pay phone standing against the dingy, stucco side of the convenience store. In the back of her mind she knows she wants to call Tony Marcus. He alone can help her and she does not need to worry about him telling Jennifer where she is or moralizing about what she has done. Tony knows as well as anyone how Alfons Vega worked and why her way of handling him was the only possible solution.

With her left hand she pats down her pockets but remembers that she is carrying no money. Not even a quarter. She sighs and leans back against a wall. Christ, nothing but nothing is easy.

Her hair is a mess, her clothes filthy, her face smeared with dirt and soot and she can barely stand upright. She probably looks like a homeless person, a derelict to be avoided and is vaguely aware how random passersby make a point of steering clear of her even as they stare in open disgust.

But she has more pressing problems than concern about her appearance. She needs medical attention and needs it now. Even she, as tough as she has always been and still is, recognizes the gravity of her situation and though not long ago she was contemplating allowing herself to die she does not want that now. She has chosen life and she will honor her own decision.

Before she can even begin to contemplate getting herself out of this mess, however, her knees unexpectedly buckle beneath her and she slides to the pavement. A part of her wants to cry but it takes too much energy so instead she slumps forward and tries everything in her power to stay awake.

She fails.

She does not know how long she remains unconscious, it could be minutes it could be hours. But it is the touch of foreign hands upon her arms and the inadvertent pain rising forth from her dislocated shoulder that finally jerks her back to consciousness.

A cry, short and harsh, causes whoever has hold of her to release their grip and she opens her eyes to get her first glimpse of the soft, elegant and supremely dignified face of the woman who is to be her savior.

 

Jennifer’s dark blonde brows tightened into a frown as she drew slightly aback and looked down at Resa with something more than mere curiosity.

“Who was she?” she asked.

“Her name’s Lillian Chen,” Resa explained. “She saved my life.”

A curious sense of insecurity spirited over her. “I see,” she murmured. “Tell me more about her.”

Resa peers through the thatch of matted, dark hair that covers her eyes and thinks, ‘She looks like an angel.’

The woman is not big in actual size but there is a presence about her that can be deceptive and is undeniably commanding. She stares down at Resa with dark, almond-shaped eyes that project infinite composure and kindness

“Hello,” the mysterious woman says while reaching out to gently brush some of Resa’s tousled hair from her face. “You look like you could use some help. May I?”

Resa stares for several seconds, her thoughts a medley of pain and confusion and intrigue but she knows enough to know what this woman is offering and how much she desperately needs it.

“Yes,” she manages to eke out, her graveled voice barely above a whisper. “Please.”

And then she promptly passes out once again.

 

* * * *

This time when she awakens she is no longer on the streets but rather she is in a hospital bed.

She blinks several times, having to squint at the blinding whiteness of the surrounding sterile environment. Around her has been drawn a curtain designed in a nondescript floral pattern that is no longer capable of hiding the ravages of wear.

She glances over at her right arm and sees that it is elevated and encased, from elbow to hand, in some sort of pressurized splint. She feels that her feet are similarly elevated and wrapped and recognizes by sensation alone that they are quite swollen. Her right shoulder is also sore where it was dislocated but the pain is not nearly as bad as it had been and she quickly recognizes that she is experiencing the lingering effects of heavy medication.

“Good morning,” a soothing voice to her right says and she turns her head to see the same Asian woman from the night before seated in a chrome chair close to her bedside. “How do you feel?”

“I–” she begins but her throat is excruciatingly dry and she cannot continue.

As if realizing her problem, the woman retrieves an orange plastic cup from the Formica table attached to the wall beside Resa’s bed.

“Here,” the woman says in her soft voice. “Drink this. It will make your throat feel better.”

Without a thought of disobedience, Resa leans forward a few inches to place her lips to the edge of the cup and takes two tentative sips. The water is room temperature but it feels cool going down, like a balm to her wounds and it is exactly what she needs.

She leans back, exhausted, but her eyes do not leave the mysterious visitor.

“My name is Lillian Chen,” the woman says by way of introduction, nodding in Resa’s direction as the shaking of hands is presently out of the question. “I found you last night out on the street. Do you remember?”

Resa pauses, then nods, opting to prolong her silence until she can determine the exact nature of her situation and how much this woman knows.

“You’ve experienced second and some third degree burns on your right arm and on both your feet. Emergency skin graph surgery was performed last night but more will need to follow and you’re presently wearing what’s known as compression garments on your wounds to help reduce potential scarring. You also have a couple cracked ribs, a dislocated right shoulder, a mild concussion on top of smoke inhalation and several lacerations. And while we’re at it, there is what appears to be a gunshot wound on your left shoulder that could be several days old. All in all, I think it’s safe to say you’ve had a particularly bad day.” She cocked a slender, dark brow. “What happened?”

A circumspect Resa does not answer. Instead she watches and allows the silence to extend between them until it becomes fairly obvious that it will remain unbroken on her end. The expression on the woman named Lillian looses a trace of its openness, recognizing no reply is forthcoming.

“It must have been extremely traumatic,” she continues. “Are you experiencing any difficulties with your memory?”

“Are you my doctor?” Resa asks in a flat tone, ignoring the question.

Lillian Chen stares at her for several beats, her dark eyes radiating intelligence and interest as they sweep over her in an assessing gaze before she answers with a simple, “No.”

“Then who are you and why are you here?”

Lillian Chen sits back in her chair but she does not look away and Resa senses the barest hint of amusement lurking behind her composure.

“I was on my way home last night when I stopped to pick up some milk and saw you collapsed against the store wall. I got you up and into my car and took you to the hospital as fast as I could.”

“Why?” she challenges. “I’m a stranger to you.”

“Because to leave you there would be to ignore my duty to humanity, all humanity, as you were clearly in a position of great peril and that is something I cannot do. The fact that you are a stranger is incidental. Strangers do not unnerve me. I run a homeless shelter Downtown,” she tells her. “I call it ‘Shelter From the Storm,’ like–”

“The Dylan song.”

“You know it.”

“It’s hardly obscure.”

“Which means you have at least some memory.”

“I never said I didn’t.”

“No,” she acknowledges. “You have yet to say much of anything.”

“We’ve just met.”

Lillian Chen shakes her head, her eyes bright. “I don’t think that’s it,” she says, her voice temperate. “Do you play chess?” she asked in a sudden shift.

“Sometimes.”

“And I’ll bet you’re quite good at it.”

Resa cocks an eyebrow. “I do all right.”

“I would like to play you some time. I imagine it would prove interesting.” Lillian Chen smiles slightly then continues. “I sense you are keeping your answers deliberately vague with me in an attempt to first fully evaluate your situation.”

“For what purpose?”

“I suspect it has something to do with your injuries. And the fact that you are, despite initial appearances to the contrary, not homeless.”

Resa once again remains silent but she has a growing respect for the woman beside her. She is smart and observant, which could prove problematic.

Lillian Chen rises from her chair and walks to the foot of Resa’s bed. “There was a terrible fire last night not a half mile from where I found you.” She links her hands behind her back. “According to the news reports it belonged to a vicious gang leader and self-proclaimed drug lord by the name of Alfons Vega.” She pauses a moment, then asks in a silky voice, “You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”

Resa keeps her face impassive but apprehension dawns within her.

Lillian seems less than surprised by Resa’s silence. With a slight, expectant nod she continues. “The preliminary police reports say something about a helicopter crash being the cause but there is also some question as to whether the fire had not started before that. Perhaps this was all related to the drug business.”

The silence stretches out between them and this time it is Lillian who does not bother to fill it, eventually forcing some reaction from Resa.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I think the two events — the fire and your injuries — are related. I think you were somehow involved. Am I right…” She waits a beat, then adds, “…Resa?”

The shock of her own name spoken by this woman ricochets through her system and she cannot fully conceal her start. But she quickly gets a grip on herself and lowers her lids as anger supplants surprise.

“If you knew who I was the entire time, why play coy?” she demands in a low voice.

“I didn’t know. I merely suspected…until now.” She tips her head to one side and Resa notes that there is no hostility in her gaze. “I have worked in homeless shelters and participated in drug counseling around Los Angeles for almost ten years. I am quit well versed in the dealings of the multitude of area gangs and their more infamous members. The name Resa Gustavez used to be one I heard on a fairly regular basis. That is, until she surrendered to the police and turned State’s evidence against her former gang. It was a remarkable turn of events that had people in the barrio talking for months.”

“Quite a memory you’ve got there.”

“It was quite an occurrence. I don’t suppose I’m the only person who recalls what happened.” She studies her soberly. “So, how did you get here?”

Resa glances away. “Long story.”

“I imagine. And to answer the question you are so carefully not asking, I am the only one who knows who you are. As far as the hospital personnel are concerned, you are merely some unidentified homeless woman I found and brought in.” She glances down at the chart hanging off the end of Resa’s bed and reads, “Jane Doe #13-1999 to be exact.” She meets Resa’s eyes again. “They have no reason to suspect anything.”

“What’s to suspect?” she asks flippantly.

Lillian smiles. “Nothing, I’m sure. But eventually you will have to answer some questions. Do you know what you are going to say?”

Resa sighs, lets out a little chuckle devoid of humor. “At this point I don’t know anything.”

Lillian Chen watches her for several moments and Resa wishes she could know the contents of the other woman’s thoughts, especially what she plans to do with the information she now possesses. Resa recognizes that she is in as precarious a position now as when the firefighters came onto Alfons’ property the night before.

“What is the nature of your situation?” Lillian asks. “By that I mean, is there someone I should call to let them know where you are?”

She immediately thinks of a pair of gentle green eyes and drops her gaze to the white bedspread pulled up to her chest. “No,” she says, the softness of her tone disguising any other emotion that should happen to leak out. “I’m alone.”

Lillian’s voice is kind. “No one is truly alone.”

Resa meets her eyes. “I am.”

At that moment the curtain around her bed is drawn aside and a balding man in his late forties wearing the distinctive white lab coat of a doctor steps within. He smiles at Resa, though she quickly notes the exhausted pallor that lies beneath his pale skin.

“Hello there,” he says to her then catches sight of Lillian Chen and his smile takes on a whole new sparkle. “Dr. Chen, good to see you,” he says warmly.

Resa frowns and Lillian makes a point of not looking at her. “Good morning, Dr. Weitz.”

He rubs the corner of one eye. “Is it morning? I wouldn’t know. Been on the go for the past thirty-six hours.”

She smiles. “I understand completely.”

“I know you do.” Dr. Weitz turns his attention to Resa. “Good to see you’re awake. You’ve been out of it quite a while. How are you feeling?”

“Drugged.”

“That’s the Morphine.” He taps one of the bags hanging beside her bed and she notices the intravenous tube that leads from it to the top of her hand. “It should wear off soon enough and then we’ll probably put you on methadone, which isn’t nearly as debilitating but also isn’t as effective.”

“I don’t want any drugs.”

“Au nautural, eh? Well let’s see how things progress and if, once what you’re on wears off and you still want to go the tough gal route, we’ll leave your system clear. But I’ll warn you, the pain won’t be like anything you’ve ever experienced and that’s before you’ve started your therapy. I don’t know how much Doctor Chen here has told you but you’ve undergone a wide variety of traumas last night, any one of which woulda had me laid out for a month. You, on the other hand, appear to be one helluva strong lady.” He glances down at the chart in his hand then back up. “Jane Doe #13, huh? Well, unless your Mom had a peculiar sense of humor, I’m willing to guess you have a better name than that, am I right?”

Resa and Lillian lock eyes for several heartbeats, then as Resa draws her breath to speak Lillian Chen goes first,

“Dr. Weitz, may I have a word with you alone please?”

Dr. Weitz shrugs and they step through the curtain, leaving Resa to speculate to the nature of their conversation. She begins to boil and the nails of her left hand dig into the flesh of her palm as she clenches her fist.

Several moments later and only Lillian Chen returns through the curtain. Resa sets upon her immediately.

“I thought you said you weren’t a doctor.”

Lillian moves to resume her seat in the chrome chair. “I said I wasn’t your doctor and I wasn’t. But now I am.”

“Explain.”

“I am an emergency room physician here at MLK but Dr. Weitz was the doctor on call last night and technically was going to be the one to handle your case.”

“Was?”

“I just asked him to allow me to assume lead physician duties for you and, as I am the senior resident here and he is completely over-worked, he agreed.”

“Why?”
“Because with me as your doctor it is my call as to whether the police are notified as to the nature of your injuries and I do not believe such a call is necessary.”

Resa stares at her for a long moment. “Why would you do that for me?”

“I have spent the past fifteen years of my life working with people of all walks of life and if there is one thing I know how to do and do well it’s judge a person’s character. I believe informing the police to your identity and whatever role you may or may not have played in the events of last night would be an incalculable wrong.”

“All that from a five minute conversation?”

Lillian shrugged. “Five minutes…plus fifteen years of experience, yes.”

“You think you’re that good at your job?”

A slender smile. “Oh, I know I am.”

Resa assesses the other woman’s confident attitude and for the first time since awakening begins, ever so slightly, to relax…

* * * *

Therapy sucks.

And Resa hates every second of it. But she is pragmatic enough to know the harder she pushes herself the faster she will heal and then the faster she will be released. Lord, how she wants to be released, more than anything at this point. So she goes through the daily rituals of stretching and lifting light weights and squeezing a racket-ball like a good patient and mentally marking every improvement that brings her one stage closer to her freedom.

She takes her daily dose of therapy in one of the main rooms duly designated by the hospital and never complains of her displeasure. But the relief of coming back to her room, however lacking in privacy, is immeasurable.

And days such as this, when Gayle, her sixty year old roommate and fellow burn victim (the older woman having fallen asleep whilst smoking her third pack of Camels and awoke in the emergency room) is nowhere to be found are even more welcome.

Resa glances at the muted though ever-running television set attached to the opposite wall. She ponders briefly a search for the remote in order to turn it off but then quickly disregards that idea as she is far too drained.

She sits on the edge of her bed, her muscles tired from the exertion of her still limited physical therapy and is instantly consumed with how much the burned areas of her body bug the hell out of her. When they are not itching they feel tight and immovable, like the flesh itself is shrinking, which, as it turns out, it is. Lillian says this is normal and why daily exercises are so crucial to her recovery but that does not alleviate her annoyance.

In the three weeks since her admittance to Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital, Resa Gustavez has had two additional skin graft surgeries. She is, by all accounts, on her way to a speedy recovery, though her definition of ‘speedy’ and that of the doctors does tend to differ quite a bit.

Her eyes flick over the fiberglass cast on her right arm that protects her last skin graft then down to her feet and the hideous aquamarine orthotic sandals that cover them. The good news is the fur that lines the inside is comfortable against her ravaged skin; the bad news is how badly they itch.

“Brought you some more Xerform,” the by now familiar voice behind her says and she glances over her shoulder to see Lillian enter the double occupancy hospital room.

“Oh, happy day,” Resa murmurs wryly but there is no animosity to her tone. The application of the topical cream is but another step to her recovery and she will deal with it accordingly. Besides, the after-effect is nicely soothing.

Resa starts to bend at the waist in order to detach the Velcro straps holding her sandals in place but has to move slowly, the pain from her other injuries is still penetrating and despite her best efforts she winces.

Lillian instantly stays her actions with her hand. “Let me,” she says and proceeds to remove both oversized orthotic sandals.

Resa glances briefly at Lillian, then looks away, her attention drawn to the television set where the noonday news is being dolled out in banal morsels by plastic talking heads.

But there is something else.

It takes a moment for the image to register, it is not one she expects to see, yet after a second or two she recognizes the figure in the photograph displayed in the upper left-hand corner of the screen as belonging to that of the beautiful and fresh-faced Jennifer Logan. It is a casual photograph, perhaps like one found in a school yearbook of some sort but it is unmistakably her.

Resa’s heart leaps into her throat and sadness radiates outward from her chest. She remembers the damned volume is, for once, turned off and is thus forced to read the closed caption white type-faced words written within the black strip at the bottom of the screen.

“…survivor of the attack at the Sacred Heart convent is leaving the hospital today for the first time. Though she refused to speak directly with any reporters, Ms. Logan did issue a statement that she is grateful for the excellent medical care she received during her ordeal and is extremely pleased to be going home. Colin, back to you…”

“She’s a brave young woman, Todd.”

“Yes, yes she is.”

Tears blur her vision and for nearly a minute she is aware only of the anguish and intense longing that vibrates deep within her. To the forefront of her mind comes a thousand different memories, of Jennifer’s laugh, the sound of her voice, the subtle sway of her walk, the way she cannot help but gesture with her hands as she talks, the scent of rose that lingers on her skin and in her hair…the feel of her lips, the way she tastes…

She is conscious of the yearning that springs to life within her and wishes there could be some way for them could be together. If only…

“Resa?”

She blinks and shakes her head slightly in an attempt to clear her mind and glances up to meet dark eyes watching her with concern.

“Are you unwell?”

Resa ponders this question with a wry self-reflection. Is she unwell? Yes, as a matter of fact, she is most unwell. And anguished. And brimming of doubt and remorse. But what can she tell Lillian of this? Not a thing. She can do nothing…nothing but reflect…and lament…and remember what it was like to be, for a fleeting moment in time, truly connected with another human being.

She massages her temple. “I’m fine. Just tired,” she lies, then remembers to say, “Thanks for asking.” And adds a small smile.

Lillian at first seems unconvinced but with nothing on which to base her skepticism other than mere instinct, she returns the smile before continuing with her task. She squeezes the Xerform into one palm and rubs both of her hands together until the ointment is evenly distributed. Then she gently administers the medicine to the injured flesh of Resa’s now exposed legs.

Resa closes her eyes and concentrates on breathing deeply. This would not hurt as greatly if she took the required dosage of her sedatives but she hates the lingering feeling of pacification that accompanies the drugs and thus takes far less than she legitimately could. It leaves her more aware, yes, but with awareness comes the consequence of pain. Nothing can fully take that away, not that she wants to lose the feeling. Suffering, after all, is the state in which she is most comfortable.

She appreciates the supremely disciplined touch with which Lillian applies the healing cream and is cognizant of how very much more this procedure hurts when undertaken by one less attentive.

Over the past weeks she has grown accustomed to Lillian’s presence in her life. It seems the woman has fairly adopted her and gives to her a generous amount of attention that is both helpful and a source of curiosity. But overall she is grateful for the company. Though she has spent most of her life in various forms of isolation the time spent with Jennifer has made her less willing to revert so promptly back to total solitude. Indeed a small part of her has even started to look forward to seeing the good doctor.

She opens her eyes to gaze upon the bowed, raven head of the other woman and for a fraction of a second she experiences the urge to reach out to touch her…then finds herself appalled by the thought, the sense of disloyalty and shame nearly choking her.

‘Where did that come from?’ she wonders and finds her eyes drifting back in the direction of the silent television screen.

Jennifer’s image is no longer present but the memory lingers. A part of her reasoning instinctively knows the impulse that just seized is born less from Lillian than from Jennifer, from catching the unexpected glimpse of the young blonde and the chaotic effect having done so is having on her emotions.

With an all-consuming desperation she misses the girl and hungers to experience that awesome connection once again, that bond to another human being that Jennifer Logan has roused within her. She feels vulnerable, supremely vulnerable…and wanting.

Lillian stands and smiles down at Resa. “It’ll only take a minute to dry,” she says and Resa nods once in acknowledgment.

Lillian studies her for a few moments then reaches out to touch the ends of Resa’s newly shoulder-length hair. “How are you getting used to it?” she asks.

Resa shrugs. “Didn’t have much of a choice.” Which is true. One of the many outcomes of her baptismal plunge was the searing of her once long and glorious mane of hair. She does not care much for the new look, having worn her hair quite long for nearly all of her life but what can she do? Lillian had been the one to perform the actual cutting and truly the look itself is not bad. It just is not…Resa.

“I’m going to grow it out,” she adds, a trace of defiance that merely makes the other woman smile.

“Whatever makes you happy.”

The laugh that escapes her lips is short and dry. “If only that were true,” she mumbles under her breath.
Well-sculpted eyebrows pull into a frown. “Why isn’t it?” Lillian asks, her voice gently probing.

Resa shrugs once. “Being happy is never easy. Not for me.”

Lillian remains quiet as she mulls over Resa’s words, then, “My father once told me that our lives are what we choose to make of them. He said we can choose to view the circumstances we encounter from either a positive or negative perspective and that the theme of who we are is expressly derived from this approach.” She reaches out to take hold of both of Resa’s hands in her own. “To look upon your wounds one could choose to say that it is a pity such beauty is tarnished and then allow the anger and frustration and sense of injustice to take over. Or,” She meets Resa’s gaze directly. “One could choose to view these injuries as symbols of the horrific ordeal you were forced to endure…yet miraculously and gloriously survived. Testaments, in a way, to your will to live.”

Resa shakes her head. “I’m alive because you got me to the hospital.”

“It has nothing to do with me. There is something within you that chooses life, Resa. A fire. A need. Otherwise you would not be here, no matter how much outside help you may have received.”

Resa watches her and sees both the sincerity and wisdom that dwells deep within her brown eyes but will only concede, “Maybe.”

“Definitely.” She holds Resa’s hands a moment longer then releases them and takes a step back. “I’ve brought a surprise.”

“Oh, really?”

Lillian Chen nods as she crosses over to the cloth tote bag she has brought with her, out of which she draws a compact, leather cased box. Noting Resa’s puzzled expression she flips open the duel latches to reveal,

“Chess.” The doctor grins. “I have been most interested in playing opposite you since we met, seeing if you’re as good as I think you are.”

Resa gives her an arched look, then slowly returns the grin. “Okay. But I’m black.”

Another smile. “Of course you are.”

 

“I was in the hospital for about a month and a half,” Resa continued but Jennifer barely heard her. Instead she was caught up in the dizzying web of jealousy that wrapped itself tighter and tighter around her heart the more she struggled to wrest herself free.

Without preamble Jennifer rose from the chair and walked to the edge of the balcony railing, acutely aware of the abrupt pause in what had been a steady flow of candid narration.

Perhaps too candid. Jennifer had heard the unconscious tenderness in Resa’s tone when she spoke of this woman, this Lillian Chen, and felt a hot wave of blind hostility spread up from the pit of her stomach until it stretched over the whole of her body. Never before had she considered herself to be a particularly jealous person. Indeed it used to be difficult for her to hear stories from her friends about their sense of resentment over certain friend-girls in their boyfriends’ lives, or the frustration brought about by the possessive behavior of one’s other half. She would find herself entirely unable to relate and would often have to beg off giving advice for the simple fact she had no experience on which to draw. To her way of thinking such behavior was pointless and spoke to a greater underlying problem in the relationship, a fundamental insecurity and lack of trust and what said person really needed to do was talk with his or her better half to clarify their standing.

But that was before she fell in love. Now such pretentious thoughts struck her as pathetically superior and woefully insincere. Oh, sure, her suppositions were probably still quite right but that didn’t help matters.

She leaned into the wind, her arm crossed over her chest and though it was only a little past noon and the temperature was stretching close to the eighties, she shivered nonetheless.

“Jennifer,” Resa said in a low voice.

She turned to face the dark-haired woman who had not changed her position but who was watching her intently.

“You were in the hospital for a month and a half,” Jennifer said before Resa could get in another word. “With dedicated Dr. Chen by your side. Playing chess. Or whatever other game she could think up. And then what? Where did you go? I mean, obviously you didn’t return to your old way of life, didn’t go back to your old apartment or get in contact with Father Hector, unless he’s been lying to me and that I highly doubt.”

Resa shook her head. “No. I haven’t been in contact with anyone from my old way of life since the day I left you in the hospital, and that included the Padre.”

Jennifer nodded, her hands wrapped around the wrought iron railing of the balcony in a fierce grip. “So where did you go after you were discharged from the hospital? You were, after all, homeless and without a job so it couldn’t have been easy for you to just pick up and make a new life.” A thought occurred to her and her smile grew thin. “Don’t tell me, let me guess. Dr. Chen offered the use of her place.”

Dark brows knit together in a frown. “She needed help with the shelter.”

“Of course she did.” That came out with all the causticity she was experiencing. “Lucky for her you were around. With nothing to do even. Just out of curiosity, how long were you there? One month? Two?”

The interim in which Resa just stared at her was painfully prolonged before she at last answered, “Six.”

Jennifer felt as if she had been kicked in the gut and she momentarily averted her face, her jaw clenched tightly against the rush of envy that she could not hold at bay.

“Six months,” she repeated in a dull voice. “My, that’s…an awfully long time.”

And then, not bothering to wait for Resa’s response, she strode forward, picked up both their dirty plates and walked back into the house.
PART TWO

Resa didn’t move. For several minutes she sat staring over the scattering of homes that dominated the Hollywood hillside, aware only of the pounding tempo of her heart and the potential bleakness that sat perched on the corner of her emotions.

She closed her eyes and let out a little sigh that was instantly lost to the wind.

A part of her wanted to be angry at Jennifer’s reaction. But there was another more judicious part that recognized its degree of validity. Jennifer was jealous and no attempt had been made on her part to disguise that fact (not that she even could, seeing as the ability to conceal her emotions was not her strong suit) which, frankly, Resa considered to be a good thing. At least in the long run divining the other woman’s thoughts wouldn’t prove too difficult… provided, of course, there was a long run.

She sighed again, heavier now, and listened to the rattling echo as the younger woman moved about within the house.

It was a sticky situation, no two ways about it. But if truth were to be had from her end, she would endeavor that it always be the unfettered kind and the consequences would have to be dealt with accordingly.

Of course, she thought wryly, it’s the ‘dealing’ part that typically sucks.

Normally she wouldn’t have even bothered, never having been one to give a damn about the opinions of others. But disregard wasn’t an option where Jennifer was concerned. To not deal with the situation would be stupid and she was far too emotionally invested at this point in her life to risk losing someone this important over pride.

In a single, fluid motion she stood and entered the house, instantly feeling the cool of the shadows upon her skin, having been left warm and aglow from their brunch under the sun. Once inside, she detected the soft, faintly floral scent (lavender again?) that permeated the whole of the house, inevitably reminding her of the woman in question.

Her eyes did not deviate from her direction, but her step was more hesitant than she would have liked, made so by the tumult of emotion and the volatility of her situation.

She found Jennifer, not surprisingly, in the kitchen, her back to Resa. A moment passed during which Resa absorbed the loveliness of the other woman’s stance, the breadth of her shoulders (surprising in one as small as she), the curve of her waist, like the gentle undulation of an hourglass, and the clenched hands that she held rigid by her side. She noted the way the younger woman’s newly short (well, to her thinking it was new) hair brushed her collar and served to emphasize its thickness, fullness, and the honey highlights that danced almost reddish in the sun’s gleam.

Jennifer sighed and, without bothering to turn around, said, “I’m sorry” in a voice that was low and restrained and carried the potential to become very sad. “I have no right to be jealous. I mean, we were apart and…and you didn’t know we’d meet up again.” Jennifer raised her hand to rub the tension from her forehead. “I’m being an idiot.”

“You’re being human,” Resa replied, struggling to quell her growing impatience for the other woman to face her.

“That doesn’t make it right.” She looked down at her fingernails, giving no indication she intended to turn.

With a sigh, Resa walked further into the kitchen until she stood directly in front of Jennifer, her eyes boring down on the younger woman until Jennifer finally raised her head to meet her gaze. Resa studied her expression, noting the tension around the lines of her mouth and the way in which the corner of her lower lip was caught up between her front teeth. It was a pensive sign Resa recognized quite well.

Jennifer sighed yet again, glancing away as she raked a hand through her short hair, and clearly struggled to find the right words. “It’s just…when you tell me that you spent six months in the company of a beautiful woman who helped save your life and doted on you at every turn, it– it bothers me.”

Resa nodded. “I understand.”

Wide eyes grew uncharacteristically hooded and several seconds passed before she asked in a quiet voice, “Should it bother me?”

They studied each other for a moment, and then Resa reached out her left hand, pleased when Jennifer took it without hesitation. Their fingers twined, Resa led her into the adjoining living room and guided her to the plush, rust-colored sofa. Without needing to be told, Jennifer sat down but Resa remained standing, her body too keyed up to feign relaxation.

Seconds felt like hours, filled with hesitation and questions and Resa hadn’t a clue how to begin or what to say. She instinctively knew this moment was profoundly important to the future direction of their relationship, so much so that it left her somewhat helpless. But beneath it all she was a strong woman and she had faced situations more treacherous than the one before her now.

She drew in a deep, bolstering breath. “Jennifer…” she began. “I think I need to explain about Lillian.”

Jennifer shook her head. “No, you don’t–”

“Yes.” Her tone was firm. “I do.”

 

Resa likes working at the shelter. Such a thought never entered her mind when Lillian first broached the subject to her as her time in the hospital approached its end, but now, after having spent the past several months engaged in helping others, she finds a certain satisfaction in the work.

It is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but Lillian never said it would be. The doctor has been up front from the beginning, explaining the less than glamorous tasks involved, the sweeping and feeding and delousing of bedding and breaking up fights and making sure couples do not copulate on the premises in full view of any who care to look. But it has been a good experience for her and a source of comfort. Whenever she feels the blues of her situation start to take hold, she has only to look around to see a whole host of others who are in a far worse situation than she to instantly feel humbled. Even, on some occasions, fortunate.
By all rights she knows she can stay here for years to come, can make this place her life. But lately the pangs of restlessness have begun to prickle the edges of her soul and she has found herself subconsciously searching…for what exactly she does not know.

Being disconnected from her former life has proven to be more difficult than she originally envisioned. It has taken all her willpower to resist venturing over to Santa Monica, and to one apartment in particular. She also finds that she misses the Padre very much and wants to find some way to contact him, but she knows that, too, is out of the question.

Lillian has sensed her agitation, but she says nothing. At times Resa feels the other woman’s eyes upon her and the questions that remain unasked and a part of her considers sharing her thoughts with the good doctor, yet she does not. They are friends and their friendship is something to be treasured but she finds herself holding back, not giving in completely, as Lillian unquestionably would like.

Shelter From the Storm is housed in a former elementary school and evokes a quasi-campus atmosphere, albeit on a small scale. The main office is located in a far corner of the grounds. Inside is a pine desk that sits in the center of a room so cramped it barely allows enough space for the door to open and it is here that Resa has spent a good portion of the afternoon.

Resa gazes out the window and lets her eyes wander. Before her she sees a well-maintained patch of grass that doubles as the front lawn and a couple of tall elm trees under which two of the more regular homeless patrons lie in sleepy repose. The day is hot, even by September standards, and she feels several beads of sweat trickle down her neck to stain the denim collar of her work shirt.

There is a knock at the door behind her and she calls out for the person on the other side to come in. A dark head pokes through the crack in the doorway. Resa recognizes DeRon, a young man successfully recovering from cocaine addiction and a savant with all things mechanical.

“Hey,” she says and receives a smile in return. “What’s up?”

DeRon fully enters. “I’m done lookin’ at the air conditioner.”

“And?”

“And we need a whole buncha stuff before it’s gonna get fixed.” He holds out a sheet of paper to her, which she takes to peruse the figures. They are not good.

She rubs the back of her neck before murmuring, “This’ll be cheap.”

They are running low on funds for the month, per usual, and having to purchase major parts comes as particularly unwelcome news. But there is nothing she can do about it. This time of year the temperature can run well into the 100’s and the heat inevitably exacerbates the already tight living conditions, producing an increase in the number of conflicts between the inhabitants. No question, she needs to have it repaired but though Lillian has given her many managerial privileges in the shelter, Resa is still hesitant about okaying such a hefty check without first consulting the doctor.

She glances up to see that the clock on the wall reads 4:37PM. At that moment Lillian is in her personal quarters of the shelter, having been kept up by a knife fight the night before and having only a few hour earlier found the precious time to catch up on the much-needed missing sleep. Resa realizes that she needs to get DeRon working to fix this problem as fast as possible and decides to chance that Lillian is awake by now, if not necessarily up.

“Give me a few minutes. I’ll come find you,” she tells DeRon then heads outside.

Resa feels the warmth of the sun and squints up at the azure sky, noting how the puffy remnants of several jet airstreams create a criss-cross pattern like some sort of divine hieroglyphic, the meaning of which she will never know. A breeze from a passing freight truck brings a brief respite from the temperature but that is soon gone, leaving in its place only the sweltering heat.

Resa’s eyes turn towards the flat roofed building that is the doctor’s quarters and she makes her way in that direction. It never ceases to amaze her that one as accomplished and talented as Lillian Chen chooses to live amid squalor and yet, much to her credit, she does. It is part of her commitment to the people for whom she works with near tireless dedication, which Resa deeply respects, much as she does the woman herself.

She presses the buzzer to the left of the door and waits a few moments before Lillian’s somewhat garbled voice calls back through the intercom,

“Yes?”

“It’s me. I need to get your okay on a few things if you have a sec.”

“Of course.”

She hears the electronic hum of the lock being released and opens the door.

The interior of Lillian’s apartment is dim, brought about by the drawn, heavy curtains and low ceilings that hearken back to the early 70’s design. The ambiance of the living room is pure minimalist, in keeping with Lillian’s personal sense of style as well as her sincere lack of time available to give to such superfluous matters.

The door clicks shut behind Resa and she crosses further into the familiar room without hesitation, having spent many a night here talking over plans for the shelter’s future and other matters with the woman whom Resa considers to be a friend. Still, a distinct distance exists between them that Resa cannot bring herself to bridge. The fault lies entirely with her, stemming from the fears and the inadequacies that continue to bedevil her and proves to be the sole source of strain in their relationship. She cannot allow herself to grow too close to anyone. She knows that Lillian is intrigued by her, is interested in getting to know more about her and her past but this is not something Resa can allow to occur. Those close to her suffer and she has caused enough suffering already.

She glances around the apartment when the doctor does not immediately appear.

“Lillian?”

There is a brief pause and then a voice from the back of the apartment calls out, “In the back.”

Resa does not think twice about heading down the narrow hallway in the direction of her friend’s bedroom.

“Sorry to bug you,” she says as she walks forward. “But the air conditioner’s acting up again and I need to get your approval on some repair work or else tonight’s gonna get very–”

She turns the corner into Lillian’s bedroom and stops dead in her tracks.

“Hot,” she finishes weakly even as her mind struggles to grapple with the scene before her eyes.

Not ten feet in front of her stands a very fresh from the shower Lillian Chen, covered only, and just barely, by a white, terrycloth towel that she holds loosely in front of her still dripping body. It is a sight so totally unexpected it is almost too surreal for her to comprehend.

For a long moment neither woman moves or speaks and the sudden sexual tension that passes between them is nearly palpable.

In a flash of recognition Resa realizes that this has been building for some time now, she just chose to ignore it, chose to build the walls around herself ever higher as she channeled her full energies into her work. But Lillian has called her bluff and Resa is left uncertain as to what she should do next. Her mind tells her one thing, but her loneliness pulls her in a completely different direction.

She begins to tremble with confusion.

Then Lillian slowly allows the towel to drop to the floor to reveal the unadulterated beauty of her body in all its splendor and Resa finds it difficult to breathe. Her heart thunders in her chest and she feels flooded with heat as her eyes travel the length of the other woman’s body in open admiration and an undisguised attraction.

She is magnificent. Truly. Her body is lean and taut and still glowing from the shower. Resa swallows hard and raises her eyes to meet Lillian’s. In their dark depths she finds a calmness and serenity that is wonderfully appealing and she starts to sway, just a little bit, in the other woman’s direction.

The invitation is clear. And Resa, who has not been with anyone in an extraordinarily long time, is hardly immune to the temptation.

Lillian advances towards her and Resa does not move. She merely watches and waits and tries to keep her breathing from getting out of hand.

The smaller woman stops before her, tilting her head to peer up from beneath thick lashes, as if to gauge Resa’s emotions. Then slowly she rises to her tiptoes, placing fingertips against Resa’s shoulders for balance, and leans up in order to lay a light kiss upon soft lips. Resa does not resist and after a moment Lillian presses closer for another, longer exchange that Resa allows to deepen.

Several moments pass during which Resa is incapable of coherent thought as her mind reels from the implication. She feels a war raging deep within herself as the unexpected surge of sexual desire threatens to overwhelm her. Then her glance flickers briefly to the bed that lays just behind Lillian and she realizes with total clarity that is where they are headed. They are going to have sex. But a part of her instinctively knows that is all it would be. Just sex. Nothing more. And she cannot help but feel that this is wrong. Wrong for her and wrong for Lillian as well.

Such a base reaction is not what Lillian wants or deserves. This woman has been her friend for many months, has saved her life, has worked hard to facilitate her recovery and has even helped her find employment. She deserves to be with someone who can return her affection with equality and without restraint and that is not something Resa Gustavez can do. She does not love Lillian Chen, not in this way, not as the center of her being, the focus of her heart…

…not in the way that she loves Jennifer Logan.

With a trace of sadness Resa pulls back. It takes Lillian a couple seconds to comprehend the cessation of the intimacy and she looks up in confusion.

Resa struggles for a moment to find the right words, then simply declares, “I can’t,” before turning to walk out of the room.

 

* * * *

She hears the door behind her open and knows without needing to look that Lillian has entered the main office. The silence between them is as awkward and heavy as both women knew it would be, with an unmerciful tension filling the air.

Resa leans against the side of the desk having stared out the window, lost in thought, for nearly half an hour. Finally she sighs and clenches her hands.

“I can’t stay here now,” she says.

There is a slight pause before Lillian starts to murmur, “I apologize–”

“No,” Resa speaks quickly, turning to face the smaller woman. “Don’t.” She subconsciously notes that Lillian is now fully dressed. Her hair is mostly dry but the ends are still damp and they serve as a tacit reminder of what almost transpired. She rubs the back of her neck, angry with herself for allowing things to get this far. “I’m not mad at you,” she says evenly. “We were both there, both responsible, me as much as you. But, it wouldn’t be right for me to remain.” She shrugs her shoulders. “I’d be tempted.”

“And you don’t want that.”

Resa shakes her head, her voice firm. “No.”

“I see,” she says softly, then moves to stand beside the window and turns to face Resa, regarding her with some consideration. “Is this about Jennifer?”

Resa’s eyes widened in surprise. “How– ?”

“In the hospital, you would sometimes cry out her name when you were sleeping.”

Resa remembers the series of nightmares that plagued her for several weeks after the fire, many of them including Jennifer and she recognizes it is entirely possible, no, likely, that she cried out for the girl in her sleep. It is a somewhat embarrassing revelation.

Lillian dips her head, a lock of hair falling across her face. “I wondered who she was at the time and what she meant to you.” Dark brown eyes meet hers. “I think I know now.”

But did she? Could she? Resa stands away from the desk, taking a couple steps forward until she is on the other side of the window from Lillian. Staring out at nothing in particular while her mind’s eye conjures up images of her past, of seeing Jennifer for the first time, admiring her courage, her strength and her beauty. She thinks of how astonishing it was for the two of them to have ever been allowed to meet in the first place, let alone to fall in love.

“I see her all the time,” she says in an almost dreamlike voice. “In my mind, in my heart… I think about her every night, before I go to sleep…when I sleep.” She rubs her palm over tired eyes as a wave of fatigue threatens to consume her. “Sometimes it hurts so much, I almost want to forget, but then—”

“You hate yourself for even thinking like that.” Resa meets the doctor’s reflective gaze. “I understand.”

There is something about the way in which she says this that catches Resa’s attention and she frowns. “Do you?”

An inscrutable emotion crosses over the other woman’s face and for a moment she seems disinclined to answer. Then she draws in a deep, steadying breath before whispering, “Yes.” The single word is laden with meaning but Resa, while curious, will not pry. She does not have to.

The other woman gives a wry smile. “You seem surprised,” Lillian murmurs. “Is it so remarkable to think that I’ve actually been in love?”

Resa shakes her head. “No. Not at all.”

“Sometimes I think it is.” She is quiet again, longer this time, and Resa senses in her a profound sadness, something unexpected for the typically staid, poised doctor. “We met in Ethiopia,” she continues, her voice soft and faraway. “I had volunteered for Doctors Without Borders and the first time we encountered each other, it was instant loathing.” A slight smile. “His name was Brian Gilleran and he was a gruff, jaded Texan who couldn’t utter a sentence without cursing, or ‘cussing,’ as he liked to put it. I found him appalling. He found me naïve. We worked together for four months and, naturally, it brought us closer. By the time my stay in Africa was completed, I couldn’t imagine a life without him. Oh, I hated the living conditions there, the squalor and impoverishment and despair. But Brian loved it. Going from crisis to crisis, dodging bullets from warring factions, providing aid in places that lacked clean water was his way of life, and I understood that. I knew if I wanted to be with him, and I very much did, that I would have to make it my way of life, too. So I agreed to make the necessary arrangements to stay, to be with him, beside him.” Her voice deepens with recollection and sorrow. “I had thought we would be apart only for a couple months, while I got some things in order back here in the States…but…”

“Something happened,” Resa surmises after a moment.

“Yes,” she affirms, nodding, her eyes glistening. “Brian stepped on a landmine in Kenya. He was killed. Instantly, or so I was told. God, I hope that was true.” She swallows hard. “After that, I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t set foot in Africa again, knowing he wouldn’t be there. So I remained in Los Angeles, working to fill my life so I wouldn’t notice how much I missed him.”

Resa watches Lillian for several seconds and wishes she could find a way to alleviate the other woman’s obvious pain but as she is incapable of doing so in her own life, she is left sorely wanting for ideas. Were Jennifer here she would undoubtedly know what to do, likely taking Lillian into her comforting embrace and demonstrating for her in no uncertain terms the level of her compassion. But, in light of recent events, Resa does not think such an action to be the wisest one for her and instead offers a sincere, “I’m sorry.”

“So was I, for a very long time. But that’s not what he would have wanted, not how he should be remembered, not with sorrow. So, I decided to try to do something positive with my loss. This shelter is one result. It was a response to an issue we used to talk about, the problems here at home that tended to get ignored. Poverty. Hunger. Homelessness. All these things that exist here on American soil but are seldom properly addressed. I even named this place after his favorite Bob Dylan song.”

“How long ago was this?”

“It feels like a lifetime.”

Resa sits for a long while without speaking, contemplating what her friend has told her of her life and the pain she must have endured. Then, with some care she asks, “And you…how long after what happened were you able to…be with someone else?”

Dark eyes meet hers squarely. “I haven’t.”

Resa is taken aback by the frank confession and the underlying insinuation that lies within and utters a rather uncharacteristically helpless, “Oh…”

Lillian comes close to laughing at the reaction, her smile reaching up to the corners of her soulful eyes. “Don’t worry, Resa,” she assures in amusement. “I’m not in love with you. I think highly of you, respect you. And I’m attracted to you, which is something I haven’t felt in a very long time. But I’m not in love with you. My heart is with one person, and I will love him until the day I die.” She reaches out to touch the top of Resa’s hand resting along the windowsill. “So, you see, I do understand. All too well.”

Resa regards her with respect and appreciation. “Yes. You do.”

For several moments after both women sit in silence, each preoccupied with the memories of their past loves. Then Lillian turns to Resa, her curiosity piqued. “What about with you? How did you and Jennifer meet?”

Resa thinks about this, trying to find a way to best summarize the convoluted and strange circumstances that surrounded their coming together. “Well, she was in college and wanted to write a book, or needed to write a book for her class and met a priest who’s a friend of mine who thought we should meet but… there was this…fight and, we, ah, ended up hiding in a convent and, um…” She suddenly smiles in abashment at her flagrant hopelessness at giving the tale its due. “Basically, it’s a long story.”

“Apparently,” Lillian agreed wryly. “Did you know each other very long?”

To this Resa nearly laughs. The abbreviated duration of her time spent with Jennifer is not something she can effectively explain, even to herself. Falling in love so fast seems wildly incomprehensible, particularly for her, but it is the undeniable truth of her life and there is no sense in denying it.

“Less than a week,” she informs Lillian and is not surprised by her wide-eyed reaction.

“It must have been quite a week,” the other woman remarks ironically.

“It was.” Resa nods, then lowers her eyes as a wave of sadness crests over her. “I last saw her the morning before you found me.”

Lillian Chen seems unsurprised. “I see. Well, that explains a great deal.” She pauses, her hesitation revealing the internal conflict between her desire for tact and the curiosity that rages within. Curiosity finally wins out. “Is she alive?” she asks.

“Yes. Last I checked.”

“And when was that?”

“Six months ago.” The statement, though impassively delivered, hurts her heart. She has not talked about Jennifer since their separation, choosing instead to bury the memory of their time together, and its wealth of meaning, within the innermost workings of her soul, until it has taken on an almost fantastical quality that defies easy definition. But commenting on it aloud, even in such general terms, brings about a resurgence of regret and heartache at the unmistakable actuality of her loss and she finds she no longer wishes to discuss the matter. She instead wants it to go away.

“You…do not return to her,” Lillian points out thoughtfully.

“No.” The single word is flat and decisive and she feels herself itch with impatience as she searches for a means out of this conversation.

Lillian tips her head to one side. “Why?”

“It’s better not to.”

“Better for whom?”

“For Jennifer. She’s safe.”

Lillian digests this a moment then says quietly, “As are you.”

Resa bristles at the gentle censure in the other woman’s tone and her eyes narrow. “What do you mean?”

“Loving someone and being in a loving relationship can be one of the most frightening things a person can do. Often it’s easier to run away, to hide, than it is to take a chance.”

Resa starts to flush. “You don’t know the situation,” she bites out in irritation.

“You’re right,” Lillian allows. “I don’t.” She fixes Resa with a straight, strong look that pierces through her self-designed emotional armor and deflates her growing ire. “But I do know people and I feel I have grown to know you to some extent over these past six months. I know that you are harder on yourself than anyone else I have ever met, even Brian, and that, my friend, is saying something. I know that you tend to blame yourself for things over which you have no control and for which you deserve no guilt. I know you only feel comfortable when your shoulders slump with the weight of your responsibility and I know that you would rather suffer alone than reach out a hand to anyone else who could potentially offer you help.”

She pauses as the room is filled by the sound of a passing freight truck on the nearby street. When the last echo fades Lillian continues, her manner more reflective. “Have you ever heard the Zen parable about the man holding onto a rock in the middle of a raging river?” she asks and Resa shakes her head. “He is being tossed about, bashed from side to side until he is beaten nearly senseless. Yet still he clings to this rock, refusing to let go even as others standing on the side beg for him to do so.”

“Why won’t he let go?” Resa asks.

“Because he is afraid. Afraid to let go. Afraid of the unknown that awaits him further down the river. It could provide him with salvation…but it just as easily could provide him with death. So he remains where he is, holding tight to the pain he already knows rather than risking a pain that is all together new.”

Resa absorbs the spirit of the story, fully aware of its intended significance but smiles sadly in return.

“The difference is,” she counters. “I have been down that river, in more ways than one, and I’ve seen what lies ahead.” She shakes her head emphatically. “I won’t put Jennifer in that sort of risk. I love her too much.”

“But rivers change all the time,” Lillian insists. “You may think you know them well, but sometimes they surprise you.”

“But most of the time, they don’t.”

Lillian sighs in muted frustration, her eyes down turned for nearly a full minute as she struggles to process the developments of the past hour.

“So, you are going to leave, then?” she asks at last, the resignation in her tone evident.

“Yes.”

“Do you know where you will go?”

“No. Not yet.”

“Let me help—”

Resa holds up a hand. “No. I’ll take it from here.” Her eyes fall briefly to the scars that lie upon her flesh, staring back as a vivid reminder of so many different things. “You’ve done enough for me, more than enough. I can never repay you.”

Much to her surprise, Lillian replies with a soft, “Actually…you can.”

Resa frowns. “How?”

Dark eyes now burn with the fire of intent. “Promise me one thing before you go,” she entreats.

Resa hesitates, torn between wanting to agree to whatever she may suggest and knowing that to do so may be impossible. “If I can,” she replies cautiously.

Lillian nods, accepting this response. She reaches out to take hold of Resa’s hands and looks up into her eyes with a persuasive plea across her lovely face. “Life seldom offers us second opportunities, Resa. I know I will never have one to be with Brian and I would give anything to have it. Even if it was only for a brief period of time.” She squeezes Resa’s hands between her own. “If, however, you are ever given another chance to be with the one you love, I ask only that you at least consider taking it. Don’t brush it off. Don’t run away. Think about it. Respect the opportunity. Understand how rare it can be.”

Resa contemplates her odd, though impassioned, request, knowing the likelihood of such an instance arising to be highly improbable. Then, slowly, she nods. But her response is not sufficient and Lillian’s hold upon her hands tightens with the ardor of her appeal.

“Say it,” Lillian urges. “Say it out loud and it will become real.”

Resa hesitates then, moved by the power of the other woman’s petition as well as her own longing, she whispers, “I promise.”

And somewhere tucked away in the back of her heart, where she keeps her most cherished hopes and dreams, she desperately, desperately wishes there truly can be a chance, even a small one, for it possibly, someday, to come true…

 

* * *

 

“I don’t know if I really believed in it at the time,” Resa said, her voice quiet with contemplation. “But, as it turns out, when the moment arrived, that’s exactly what I did. Last night, when I stood there listening to what you had to say, hearing your words, feeling your voice wash over me after all these months, I thought about what Lillian had said to me. I thought about how scared I was, how my staying away from you might have had as much to do with my own fear as it did with my wanting to keep you safe.” She sat down on the coffee table opposite Jennifer, her unseeing eyes fastened on the grain in the hardwood floor beneath her bare feet. “I didn’t believe it when Lillian suggested it. I’d convinced myself of the righteousness of my actions, that I was doing the right thing. But deep down, I was also afraid. More afraid of taking the chance to be happy with you than I have been of anything else in my life. I’ve never been in a situation like this before.” She released an unsteady breath. “And I– I’m scared I won’t know what to do…”

The last of the words faded into the quiet of the room and Resa was too agitated to look up at Jennifer, who had yet to move from her place on the couch. Instead, she reached out to take hold of Jennifer’s hand in an almost reverent manner, as if it were an object unto itself, wholly precious and easily lost. She turned the palm face up and let her gaze travel over the deep grooves that played like lines of a map across its surface and slowly bent her head to place a kiss of infinite tenderness upon the warm, salty skin in an act that seemed close to a benediction. Then she glanced up and their eyes met for the first time since she’d begun speaking and she was astounded to see Jennifer’s face awash with tears.

Before she could draw a breath to speak, to ask her what was the matter, the younger woman leaned forward to press against her lips a soft kiss that brought tears to Resa’s own eyes. Oddly, given the combustible nature of their sexual chemistry, the kiss itself did not immediately ignite the flames of passion, as it were, for this was a gesture indicative of a state beyond such things. Rather this was intended to be (and was received as) a message of unending love and devotion, a vow of sorts between two people who oftentimes found themselves lost in the depth of their own emotions. When they broke apart Resa felt the sensation of teardrops as they slid out from the corners of her eyes and traveled unhindered down the sides of her cheeks, her heart filled to the point of pain while she recognized, if only for an instant, the magnitude of their bond.

Resa leaned forward until their heads were touching. She didn’t speak for the simple reason she could think of nothing adequate to say, no way to effectively encapsulate within the restriction of language how she felt, how blessed and complete. She wasn’t a poet or a writer or anything remotely approaching creative in terms of expression and for the first time in her life she regretted that fact. She wanted desperately to tell Jennifer what was in her heart, yet found she could not.

But, as it turned out, she was not the only one lamenting the inadequacies of verbal communication.

A motion caught her attention and drew her eyes downward as she watched Jennifer deliberately reach out to the front of her Oxford to begin unbuttoning the shirt, one, two three…until it fell open, exposing her flesh as much as her soul. She made no protest as Jennifer laid both of her hands against Resa’s shoulders and slowly, sensuously, slid the material off her body, leaving the dark-haired woman naked from the waist up. The tempo of her pulse quickened and she swallowed hard, the back of her throat dry. She was in such close proximity to Jennifer that she could hear the quiet elevation in the other woman’s breathing and felt the slight tremble in her touch as it played across Resa’s sensitive skin.

Jennifer moved forward and Resa felt the electric contact of lips caressing the curve of her neck, against the scar left by the bullet that united them so long ago. She closed her eyes and a soft moan escaped as Jennifer’s hands slowly moved down Resa’s body, her palms tracing every dip and curve along the way until they could reach no further given their present positions. Resa sucked in her breath and moved to push Jennifer backwards onto the plushness of the down-filled couch. She placed her hands on either side of the smaller woman’s head and stretched out above her, shifting to allow the lower halves of their bodies full contact. Jennifer’s hand curved around the back of Resa’s right thigh, gradually working its way up, well past the cotton sweat shorts and Resa found herself unconsciously arching into the young woman as the heat radiating between them intensified.

Damn…

Resa leaned down to capture Jennifer’s mouth, reveling in the taste and feel of her, the beauty in the way they fit together, the rightness of their coupling. One kiss led to another and another, each growing more ardent, slanting this way and that. Jennifer’s fingers dug into her naked back as Resa pressed in close again, caught up in a clinging desire fueled, in no small part, by impatience.

She shifted her weight to one side, freeing her other hand to quickly unfasten the buttons on the smaller woman’s white blouse and tossed the garment aside. She covered Jennifer’s body with her own, kissing the curve of her neck, deliberately pressing their hips together until she heard a shuddered groan close to her ear. She grinned to herself, knowing already what type of pleasures the younger woman enjoyed and having every intention of giving them to her…

…so, of course the phone rang.

Resa didn’t break for a second as she murmured, “Don’t get that.”

Jennifer shook her head, one hand sliding against Resa’s abdomen. “Won’t.” And she continued her exploring, eliciting a sharp intake of the taller woman’s breath that left no doubt how things would progress.

But then something beyond either of their control happened; the machine picked up and the singsong voice of a woman who had to be well into her middle age rang through loud and clear.

“Hi, honey…”

Resa felt Jennifer’s body freeze beneath her touch and heard the muffled wail of her “Oh, shit!” vibrate against the side of her left breast.

The voice continued. “We’re here at the airport but don’t seem to see you anywhere. We’ve had you paged–”

“Shit!”

Jennifer scrambled up from underneath Resa and practically dove, half-naked, to grab the phone.

“I’m here, I’m here!” she repeated breathlessly, the silky sheen of sweat across her shoulders glowing in the sunlight and making Resa want to cry out from the agony of frustration. She dropped her head back against the arm of the sofa as she attempted to quell the ache of her body and thrumming of her heartbeat, with only partial success.

After a few minutes of primarily one-sided conversation, Jennifer clicked off the phone and replaced the receiver with painstaking care back into its cradle as if she were fighting to prevent herself from hurling it across the room. The blonde woman reached down to grab her shirt off the floor, then instead of putting it on right away, rubbed fingers across the tension that knotted her brow before letting out a humorless chuckle.

“You know, one of these days we’re going to look back at this moment and laugh…” She dropped her hand to her side, muttering, “I hope,” and then slipped the shirt back on.

Resa sat up, extremely aware that they were not going to continue where they had left off. “That was your mom,” she surmised.

Jennifer nodded.

“And she’s in town with your dad, between flights somewhere.”

Another nod.

“And, they’re on their way over.”

“Boy, you’re good.”

Resa grabbed her own shirt off the coffee table and stood. “I should leave,” she said decisively as she buttoned up the Oxford.

“Why?” Jennifer asked as she watched her with a rueful expression, which earned her a wry look.

“Think about it.”

There was a long pause as Jennifer did just that, her green eyes clearly revealing the pensiveness she felt. But, a moment later, the younger woman floored her by saying with calm conviction, “I’m going to tell them.”

Caught off-guard by the simple statement, made with a trace of defiance, Resa felt uncertain as to what her response should be, what she should say to such a potentially combustible declaration. She watched the younger woman very closely before cautiously asking, “Are you sure you want to do that?”

Jennifer tensed. “Yes.” Her eyes grew hooded. “Is there a reason why I shouldn’t?”

There are many reasons why you shouldn’t, she thought, but held her tongue. Instead she said, “I just want to make sure you’re prepared. I can’t imagine a discussion like that is going to be a walk in the park.”

“I know,” she said, raising her chin in a hint of rebelliousness. “But, I want to do it.”

Resa continued to watch her for a few solemn moments more, all too aware that she was wholly inexperienced in matters of intimate relationships, so much so that every step she took made her feel clumsy, which was quite new for her. Still, she had enough common sense to recognize the boldness of such a step that Jennifer was proposing and the likely ramifications it would render and she couldn’t help feel it was unwise. A great deal had happened to them in a short period of time, too much for either woman to fully process. To act now was risky and Resa didn’t want to have her friend hurt. That said, she could see the idea wasn’t going to go away, that Jennifer felt too strongly about this and, sensing it better to keep her doubts to herself, she decided not to push the issue.

“It’s up to you,” she said enigmatically, then, not knowing what else to add, she turned to head for the stairs. But she would not escape so easily.

“I’d like you to be here,” Jennifer said from behind her, bringing her up short.

Resa turned back to face the younger woman. “That’s just not a good idea,” she said, the words tumbling out of her mouth before she could check them.

Jennifer crossed her arms over her chest. “Why?” she demanded as irritation radiated off her in tangible waves and Resa felt her own frustration start to boil over.
“Why?” she repeated. “How about because you’re basically, I dunno, ‘coming out’ I guess is the term, to your parents and at the same time saying, oh, by the way, here’s my girlfriend, the ex-gang member and drug trafficker and, while we’re at it, convicted felon. They’re going to have a fucking heart attack.”

“Resa, the fundamentals of the situation aren’t going to change whether I tell them now or next year. Your past just is what it is and my parents just are who they are. There is no easy way around this, no icebreaker that’s going to make them less upset. But I am in love with you and I plan to have you in my life for a very long time and that means telling them about you. If they freak out that’s their problem. Not mine.”

Resa sighed, recognizing the underlying bravado of the words and knowing that Jennifer was saying this as much for her own benefit as for Resa’s. For a moment she was struck by the irony of this dispute coming so quickly on the heels of their near lovemaking and she wished with all her might that the phone call had not come through when it did, that they had been given at least a little more time to grow comfortable with the radical change in both of their lives before having to confront the outside world in all its harsh complexity. But that was not the hand they had been dealt.

“Look,” she said. “I’ve never had to go through this. Any of this. So I don’t know what the procedure is.”

This only seemed to pique Jennifer even further. “Like I do? Resa, I’ve never even been with another woman, never even thought about it. This is all new for me, too. I’m just following my heart and my heart tells me I should tell them. Now. Today. And that I would like you there with me.”

“They’ll end up blaming me,” she countered.

“I won’t let them.”

“You can’t control that.” She shook her head. “Jennifer…” she began, then stopped herself, willing her anxiety and exasperation down to a more manageable level. A moment later she continued, her voice calmer. “I only want you to think about this a little more. Telling them is going to fundamentally change your relationship. You shouldn’t just rush into it, for your sake as much as your parents’.”

Jennifer glanced away, jaw shifting repeatedly and Resa saw the muscle in the side of her face pulsate with repressed anger. Nearly a full minute passed before the younger woman spoke, her voice controlled but firm. “Fine. You don’t have to be here for it.” Green eyes met hers. “But I am going to tell them.”

They stared at each other for a couple beats more before Resa nodded once, then turned to head up the stairs.

 

* * * *

 

Jennifer stared out the window at the relative tranquility of her front yard and watched a silver BMW pass by until it took a curve out of sight. Her eyes then fell upon a lone sparrow pecking in the grass beneath her elm tree, searching with admirable determination for something that appeared not to be there. A few moments later the little bird took flight and soared off into the sky, whether or not it was successful in its quest she did not know, though she hoped it was.

She chewed her lower lip.

Given that in less than twenty-four hours her life, once sedate and orderly with the occasional lapse into outright boredom, was in the process of rapidly crumbling around her ears, Jennifer thought she was dealing with the unfolding situation remarkably well. Of course her heart was like a hummingbird trapped within the walls of her chest and her palms were wet while her mouth was dry, but she wasn’t hysterical and that, she felt, at least deserved some commendation. Once Resa left, however, her state of being might be a different matter altogether.

She drew in what she hoped was a steadying breath and slowly expelled it, then wiped her hands against her shorts and tried to wrap her mind around the fact her parents were on their way over while her female lover was getting dressed upstairs in order to leave before they arrived so she could then drop the A-bomb of all possible disclosures in the middle of her otherwise tranquil familial situation. Astounding.

Perhaps Resa is right, she considered warily. Perhaps I should wait.

Her heart didn’t want to, though. Her heart wanted to shout it from the rooftops to any and all who cared to listen. But she was judicious enough, despite her youth, to realize that perhaps the heart was not always the wisest of guides and she found herself, all at once, deeply confused. It had seemed so clear only minutes earlier, when the impulse first arrived and passed through her lips in the form of the declarative statement in one continuous, uncensored wave. But the look on Resa’s face, the caution and concern, made her now think twice about what had initially seemed so natural, so fated. Should she tell her folks now, like this, with no preparation, almost no time between the actualization and their arrival? Or should she wait, and if so, then the question became, wait for what?

Wait for what?

A sound behind her caught her attention and she turned to see Resa descend the staircase, dressed now in the jeans and black T-shirt she wore from the night before, with the long, dark coat draped over her right arm. For a fraction of a second, Jennifer saw the other woman as if through a stranger’s eyes, seeing, as a stranger would see, the raw force of her presence; the leonine grace and power in the way in which she carried herself; the elegance and beauty that mixed with the undeniable toughness and sometimes infuriating intractitude. And when light blue eyes swung around to meet hers, she was reminded of their first electric meeting, the first time she encountered the hypnotic intensity of that gaze.

Was I hers from that moment, she wondered in near awe. Was it as simple as that?

Resa smiled hesitantly and Jennifer smiled in return. But she also recognized the distance that had sprung up between them, due in part to their quarrel, and was drawing a breath to say something that she hoped would ease the quiet discomfiture when the honking of a horn from outside forestalled her.

A quick glance out a window confirmed that the taxi had arrived and that it was, regrettably, time for Resa to leave. Jennifer felt a bit ill. Not yet, she thought in something close to desperation. It’s too soon.

Neither spoke. Instead they moved forward in unison with a sort of dazed finality until they were both standing on the front steps of her home, the sun having moved further along the sky so a patch of shadow now enshrouded them. She felt newly cool.

There were no less than a thousand things Jennifer wanted to say at that precise moment, all warring within her, crowding and tumbling over each other until she found she could articulate nothing whatsoever. She loathed the thought that they should part like this, but try as she might, she could not find the words to make everything suddenly sunny and congenial. She momentarily closed her eyes and swallowed hard, willing herself not to cry and though her lower lip threatened to tremble, she succeeded in keeping herself under control.

Resa crossed over to the cab and spoke briefly to the driver, then tossed her coat in through the open passenger window and turned back to face Jennifer, who had not moved, had barely dared to breath. For a moment, Jennifer thought it possible that the other woman might get in the car right then and there and the notion made her sick with impotence.

But Resa didn’t do that. Rather, she closed the distance between them and reached out to cup the back of Jennifer’s head, unceremoniously drawing her against her long, lean body and into a deep, fearless kiss that Jennifer emphatically returned. She memorized every moment, every touch and sensation that rocketed within her and wished, more than anything, that she did not have to let go. But she did.

Resa pulled back yet still held both sides of her face, eyes boring into her with an almost ferocious intensity as she said, “Do what you think is right. Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to anyone else but yourself. Okay?”

Jennifer nodded, not quite trusting her voice, and Resa leaned forward to place a tender kiss upon her forehead.

Say something, her mind screamed desperately. Ask her when she’s coming back. Don’t part like this, not like this.

But, though she opened her mouth to speak and Resa paused as if to hear what she had to say, she found no words forthcoming. Instead she felt strangely paralyzed, as if somewhere along the line she had become curiously disengaged from her own body and was watching their farewell with a third party’s perspective, interested but not fully involved. It made no sense.

Resa took pity on her, caressing the side of her face, her cheek, her neck, before reaching down to take both of her hands into her own. “I love you,” she said with a quiet certitude yet even to this Jennifer found she could not respond. She did love Resa, of that she had no doubt, but forming the words proved beyond her capability at this moment so, once again, she nodded mutely and hated herself for her failure.

Resa smiled almost shyly then turned to walk back to the cab. She entered and a moment later the car shifted into gear.

Jennifer caught one last fleeting glimpse of blue eyes before the taxi backed up the impossibly narrow road outside her home, shifted forward and drove off. And as it progressed, a peculiar sensation came over her. She felt, suddenly, as if the past twenty- four hours, with all their strange, unexpected twists and discoveries, with their promise and beauty, had been nothing more than an extraordinary dream. With each second as the cab drove further and further away, out of sight, out of her realm, it was as if she were slowly waking up, finding herself on the front steps of her newly purchased home and wondering aloud, “How did I get here?”

There was no answer.

Just then, a man and woman, dressed in the casual simpatico of a couple who had been together for some length of time, walked hand-in-hand down the road and passed by her home, comfortable enough in each others presence to not feel the compulsion to speak, their two Labradors trundling ahead, not even straining at their leashes. They were such a typical sight, so innocuous in their normalcy, that they almost failed to register in her consciousness, until she realized, with a quiet chill, that that would never be her. She would never be able to be with the one she loved and be totally accepted by those around her to the point of disregard, by those she knew and by others whom she would never meet but who would still see her hand-in-hand with Resa and think it somehow odd, somehow different, even if they totally accepted the notion on a philosophical level. She was, she realized, on the verge of journeying down a road about which she hadn’t a clue, not a fucking clue and she was suddenly terrified. Utterly, undeniably, mind-numbingly terrified.
She turned on her heel and walked back into her house.

 

* * * *

I handled that all wrong, Resa mentally chided herself as the cab made its way down a tight road that twisted its way through the Hollywood Hills. Wind rushed through the open back window, whipping her loose hair all about with careless abandon but she paid it no heed.

She’s not going to understand. She’s going to be pissed. God, I can be such a fucking idiot sometimes!

For a moment she considered telling the cab driver to turn around, to take her back. But she remained mute and the car drove on.

She glanced at the passing scenery, taking in the expensive cars parked along the road beside million dollar homes and though this neighborhood was technically only a couple miles from her own current residence, she couldn’t help but feel like a tourist in a foreign country. This place, the Hills of Hollywood with all its elegance, its understated wealth and history, was as removed from her world as Jennifer’s Santa Monica neighborhood had once been, perhaps even more so.

And I don’t belong in either, she mused wryly, turning her head in time to catch the cab driver’s glance at her, though he looked away the moment he realized he’d been caught.

Whatcha lookin’ at, old man? she wondered. The Latina or the lesbian? She laughed to herself, then mused, Hell, probably both.

Suddenly bone-weary, she leaned her head back against the top of the cracked, vinyl seat and stared at the peeling roof of the car.

How did I get here? she wondered to herself. How the fuck did I…

 

* * * *

 

…get here?

Jennifer stood in her kitchen, right hip leaning into the side of the tile counter. She stared at the porcelain frog figurine salt-n-pepper shakers that her nephew Skylar had painted for her last Christmas and tried to make some sense of her life.

Who in the world would have ever thought she would end up like this? So astonishingly different from what she could have ever possibly imagined while growing up in Kansas, in the heart of America?

Given this brief time for reflection before the arrival of her parents she could not recall just what it was exactly she used to envision for herself as an adolescent. Certainly not this, not being in love with a woman and definitely not a woman the likes of Resa Gustavez. It was funny, but in the past year and a half the most glaring, intrinsic obstacle of her emotional attachment to the former gang leader had truly not occurred to her. Gender had never been an issue, not even a consideration. Resa was simply Resa and that was all there was to it, at least as far as she was concerned. But, she was not so naïve that she failed to realize others would undoubtedly see things in a different light, as indeed she was about to face head-on with the arrival of her parents.

She felt queasy, her skin clammy.

How will I explain this to them? What will I say?

When she was younger, before the first brush of maturity had been felt across her self-awareness, she would try to picture where she would be in ten years or more, say by the time she turned twenty-five. And though she could never form a vivid picture in terms of relationships, she had rather dismissively assumed, as so many young girls reared in the bosom of conservative ideals were inclined to assume, that she would be married and have at least one child, possibly even planning for a second. And when she would have such a notion, it would, as often as not, leave her mildly depressed for reasons she was as yet too limited to realize.

Am I gay, she questioned. Then, considering how she’d spent the past evening and the better part of this morning she felt entirely absurd at the thought.

Yet, the question persisted. It wasn’t as if she’d been attracted to other women in the past. She honestly hadn’t. But, admittedly, her sexual experience was significantly limited, both by the culture in which she had been raised and by the way her life had evolved to this point. Curtis Eliot had been her first sexual partner and she had made him wait a great long while before they consummated their relationship, which, though quaint by the standards of many, was still quite common practice in the Heartland. And since the time of their break-up, she had been too focused on her school and her potential career to allow herself to be distracted by romantic thoughts. Until, of course, Resa Gustavez stormed her way into her life and changed everything with just one look. Now she didn’t quite know what she was.

Can a woman be in love with a woman and not be gay? she wondered in confusion. Just be in love with that one woman and that’s it? Does it work like that? Does it even matter? Am I going nuts?

She sighed.

Or am I already there?

 

* * * *

 

The cab drove off and Resa unlocked her car, a black ’96 Honda Accord, which was parked outside the Borders Books & Music, exactly where she’d left it the night before.

Warm, stale air greeted her as she plopped down into the driver’s seat and she immediately started the car in order to activate the automatic windows, lowering them quickly. For several minutes she sat unmoving, ignoring the music that wafted in from the radio as she stared straight ahead. Seeing nothing.

Where do I go from here? she wondered. Do I drive around for a few hours, maybe catch a movie, then call to check if Jennifer’s parents are gone yet so I can…what? Sneak over?

She shook her head in disgust. No. That wouldn’t do. She felt too juvenile, too furtive, as if she’d done something wrong and it annoyed her, frustrated her, even angered her.

It shouldn’t be like this, she thought peevishly. She should be able to love Jennifer openly and honestly, without any nebulous guilt factor. As a supremely independent soul, it galled her to be concerned over the approval (or, more likely, disapproval) of someone else, of people she didn’t even know. She hated that. Passionately.

This is bullshit. Plain bullshit…

…but it was also the way things worked in the world in which she lived and, if she was going to forge a new life with Jennifer, as she desperately wanted to do, then she would have to face those issues with honesty. Confront them, deal with them. Suck it up and be brave. Yes, that was it…

Oh, but it was, as she well knew, soooo much easier said than done. And all at once she felt a weakness begin to seep within her, a susceptibility.

You know you don’t have to go back, a little voice inside her said. Jennifer doesn’t know where you live, doesn’t know where you work, doesn’t have a single way of getting in contact with you. You can leave here and keep driving. It would be so much easier, better, wiser, kinder to keep driving…

No, she angrily shook her head. No, I’m committed to this. I’m committed to Jennifer. I made a promise, a vow. And I want to be with her. I want this. I do…

And she did. Unquestionably. But, she couldn’t stop the voice, couldn’t quite squash the wellspring of doubt and criticism that bubbled up within her. She had admonished Jennifer for not thinking out what she was going to say to her parents, but had she, Resa, really taken the time to consider what she was about to do? How her life was teetering on the edge of radical change, total revolution? Had she thought about what the consequences would prove to be for her? To be totally honest, she realized that she had not. Hadn’t worked through the concept of what their life together would entail and she felt panic start to gather in the pit of her stomach.

“Don’t do this,” she lashed out at herself, unaware that she’d even spoken aloud. “Don’t fuck this up!”

The words hung in the air for a long moment. Then she reached over to put the car in gear and drove off, all the while attempting to ignore the growing sense of anxiety that floated around the periphery of her consciousness, waiting…waiting…

It’s just because I’m not around Jennifer, she thought angrily, but the complexity of their situation and the unjustness of what loomed ahead seemed to suddenly weigh down upon her with an unrelenting pressure.

Her head began to ache and her stomach clenched and she found, for a moment, that she hated the whole goddamn world for putting her in this situation, for making her feel as if she had somehow done something wrong by loving someone else, that Jennifer was, yet again, going to be made to feel pain because she had committed the inexcusable sin of falling in love with her, with Resa Gustavez, former gang leader and, worst of all, woman. Personally, Resa didn’t give a shit what others thought about her, if they disapproved of her choice in whom she loved because it conflicted with their beliefs, their supposed “morals.” They could pretty much all fuck off as far as she was concerned.

But, when it came to Jennifer, her feelings were not so defiant. It galled her to no end knowing that Jennifer Logan would be subjected to such prejudice and intolerance. She was such a good-hearted person, a giving soul that deserved to be treated with respect, not condemnation by groups of people who failed to live by the very principles they presumed to impose on the rest of the world.

She rubbed the tension coursing through the back of her neck.

Will my life ever be easy, was a bemused question she had grown accustomed to asking of herself from time to time, but now, right now, she realized with absolute certainty that the truth of the answer was, no. Her life would never be easy. Not if she continued on this path, not if she decided to start a life with Jennifer. It might, perhaps, become less difficult, but it would never, ever be easy and she suddenly felt the urge to cry out in anger.

You don’t have to go back, the little voice whispered again, sliding past the emotional defenses that she was too tired at present to maintain, and for a moment she considered it, considered the possibility…

“I don’t have to go back,” she said aloud, trying out the words for herself. “No one’s forcing me. No one’s holding a gun to my head…”

…and wouldn’t it be easier? she continued to reason. For Jennifer? Wouldn’t it be for the best for her…?

She turned left at the light and pointed her car in the direction of her home, aware, all the while, that a grim little refrain was dancing about the corners of her mind,

I don’t have to go back…I don’t have to go back…

 

* * * *

 

She might not come back.

After tidying up the house, Jennifer had decided to change her clothes before her parents arrived, opting for a pair of black slacks and a long sleeved, rust-colored silk blouse and was in the middle of checking her hair for the fourth time when the niggling thought popped into her mind like an unwelcome guest.

That’s what you’re really afraid of, isn’t it? That she won’t return. That’s the real reason you wanted her to be with you when you told them, right? Because you’re afraid she doesn’t need you as much as you need her…you’re afraid, so very afraid…

She set down her hairbrush with an unsteady hand and faced her reflection in the mirror. Green eyes flecked with gold and blue stared back, and in their depths she had to admit to herself that she saw fear. Genuine, childish, and chilling.

…she might not come back.

Her shoulders slumped and she had her answer. Of course that was what she feared; it was her greatest fear, so great it was almost incomprehensible, paralyzing. What if she went ahead, told her parents about Resa and their relationship and suffered through all the inevitable chaos that would come with such a disclosure, only to find it was all for naught, that Resa wasn’t coming back…?

Her throat was dry and her skin moist and her heart pounded out a fine bosso nova, all of which were unequivocal signs of her own imminent cowardice.

“I can’t do this,” she realized as a sweat started to break out along her temples. “Oh, God…I can’t tell them…”

She turned away from the mirror, feeling an odd sense of shame, and moved onto the balcony that connected to her bedroom.

Once the cool breeze touched her skin, she calmed a bit, but the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach remained and, as was the inclination for all panicked people, she began to search for a way out of the impending situation.

Resa was right. I don’t have to tell them anything, she began to reason with willful self-delusion. After all, they’re here for a couple hours, while they wait for their connecting plane. Then they’ll be gone and there is absolutely no reason to raise this issue now.

No. There’s no point in telling them now. She needed to wait until…wait until…

…when? A few weeks? Months? Years?

Wait until when?

“Until I’m certain,” she realized to herself. And she knew then, with near violent self-disgust, that she was not completely certain now. Even after last night, after all Resa’s assurances, after looking in her eyes and knowing as well as any human being can know that she loved her, Jennifer Logan still had doubts. It tormented her, left her feeling guilty and insecure.

Where is your faith? a part of her asked cold-bloodedly.

“I don’t know…” Then she was forced to concede, “With Resa…”

Well then, that isn’t faith at all, now is it? the inner voice persisted. That’s merely convenience.

Jennifer swallowed hard, too afraid to answer, and found herself both wishing that the day was over and, conversely, that it had never begun. Everything seemed to be happening at once, her world spinning in all possible directions and leaving her deliriously unfocused and hopelessly lost. Love was supposed to conquer all, not conquer the one who loved, right? Then why did she feel like this? Why did she feel as if she was weak and had no faith? For what, exactly, was she waiting?

A distinct noise intruded on her thoughts. She swallowed hard at her trepidation as she recognized the ring of the front doorbell echoing about the house and realized that her time for reflection and deliberation was over.

Her parents had arrived.

 

* * * *

At the end of the block, Resa found a space between two cars, a gold El Camino and a rusting blue van, to park her Honda. Willing her mind blank, she grabbed her long coat and exited the car, activating the alarm with an unconscious flick of a button, not bothering to process the single chirping sound it made.

Without realizing it, she walked with her head down and her shoulders hunched forward, her mind zeroing in on the cracked cement that passed under her feet and little else. She did not want to think anymore, did not want to feel the pressure, the burden of confusion and the guilt of second-guessing. But her mind was naturally too active to be completely shut down and unwanted thoughts were soon traipsing about with troubling freedom. She had not foreseen any of this, had not thought it possible, after last night and that morning, to again question the properness of her decision and was thus left more vulnerable than she could have imagined.

She loved Jennifer. With every part of her there was to love, every ounce, every fiber, every thought and hope and dream and yet somehow that was still not enough to silence her relentless uncertainty. What would it take? Would there ever be such a moment? A time of absolute certainty? Or was that merely the stuff of fairytales?

A high-pitched squeal drew her attention and her head shot up, but she quickly realized that the noise had only been the childish yelp of a little boy no more than four, as he ran giggling down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, away from his tired-looking mother.

Resa stopped his progress and watched a moment as the mother called out, “Salvador!” in a voice both stern and weary yet still suffused with maternal affection. The little, dark-haired boy, having heard this tone before and recognizing in it the end of the game, turned his direction around at once and scurried back to his mother’s side as they turned a corner and entered the front yard of their woefully neglected two-story apartment complex. A moment later and the duo were gone.

Resa watched after them for several moments longer, not certain what it was she was wanting or hoping to see, what it was about this image that drew her. Then she slowly turned her attention to examine the whole of the block with the subtle appreciation that was found only in one who was considering it from a stranger’s perspective…from Jennifer’s perspective.

There was, at first glance, or perhaps even at second or third, very little beauty to be found in the neighborhood in which she had spent the past year, since leaving Lillian and the shelter behind. It was not much more than plots of land that had been lamentably overdeveloped, resulting in buildings being constructed practically on top of each other. Of the dozen or so virtually identical apartment complexes that crowded the street, only one had allowed any room for a vague semblance of a yard, which was really no more than a sadly neglected patch of brown grass. Everything else was pure pavement, surrounded by steel, metal, or chain-link fences. Once there had been attempts at lawns, but the late night sport of “trenching” (an enduring tradition born out of boredom and booze where a car is driven onto someone’s yard with the sole intent being to leave deep tire tracks like so many scars in the earth) eliminated that. No yard left unfenced was safe, thus making the luxury of having one more of a burden than it was worth. The result was a concrete jungle of sorts that inadvertently provoked a sense of depression within the inhabitants.

The buildings themselves were constructed for economic purposes only. There was little, if any, attention paid to aesthetic interest. Occasionally someone would get creative with their color scheme, breaking out the pinks or pistachio greens but, for the most part, the look of choice was a dull, flat, uniform off-white that was chosen simply because it was best at hiding the dirt and decay.

Resa glanced up at the sky and noted that it was as fine a pale blue down here, amid the downtrodden and unworthy, as it had been from the balcony of Jennifer’s house. But the veritable forest of apartment buildings, which she hated, marred the view from where she stood. It was this sort of claustrophobia that forced her to venture out onto the roof of her complex, which was, naturally, expressly forbidden by the management but was an edict she easily and frequently ignored. She needed her way of escape, her method of breaking free from the walls that surrounded her, day in, day out, at every turn, and going to the roof was the easiest means. She wasn’t the sort of person who could too long tolerate being cooped up, a condition that had plagued her even before she’d spent her time in the confines of her prison cell but had undoubtedly been worsened by her incarceration.

At that memory she shuddered. God, what a nightmare that had been. But she’d survived it and somehow managed to come out relatively unscathed, though unquestionably changed. No person who spent any amount of time locked up could emerge unaffected and she was no exception. Yet, painful as that time had been, she had learned a great deal about herself from her experience and for that she would, ironically, be grateful.

Somewhere a dog began barking with a rabid fury and Resa was pulled from her reverie.

Shaking her head to clear the preoccupation, she moved forward toward her own apartment. She passed through the half-open, iron-railed gate that bordered her complex and crossed through the dark, narrow threshold. Once inside the tiny vestibule, she retrieved her keys from her jeans pocket and opened up her vertical, brass mail chute, grabbed the assortment of letters without regard, and walked up the stairs on her way to the third floor.

In the past year, she had paid little attention to the finer details of her own residence, choosing instead to block them out as she had succeeded in blocking out so many distasteful things when they proved beyond her control.

But today it was not as easy for her to do that, not easy at all to ignore the decline. Her eyes seemed to be caught up in the unhappy minutia of everything about her; the broken elevator that, as far as anybody knew, had never worked, and forced the residents to use the confined, cement stairwell, which, oftentimes, afforded one the opportunity to see a whole host of illegal activities take place; the circles of gum that stuck to the rubber-edged steps, having long since gone black from the accumulation of a wide variety of filth until they looked like spots on a Dalmatian; the cigarette butts scattered about at every turn like bits of confetti after a parade; the putrid smell of cooked cabbage and fried fish that choked the late afternoon air; walls as thin as paper that refused to shut out the shouts and arguments which came about at all hours of the day and night and were sometimes inescapable even when she snuck out onto the roof. It was a place that bespoke desolation and despair and had been a perfect reflection of her outlook on life, on her view of herself, when she had first arrived. She hadn’t notice these things then, hadn’t really cared. But now she did.

She paused at the third floor, her floor, and noted that the metal door that was supposed to be there in order to block out the noises, which tended to echo up the stairwell, was newly missing. Only the hinges remained, looking like little copper hands reaching out for something that was no longer there. Lord only knew who would want a door like that, but someone clearly had and, seeing no reason not to other than the inherent wrongness of the action itself, which was never a consideration, had apparently stolen it. This in no way surprised her.

She turned down her hallway, which was long and narrow and bleak, with ceilings that were too low and industrial carpet that was well stained and missing several patches. Her apartment was at the very end, beside the hallway window through which she could see the black metal of the fire escape peek out. She unlocked and entered her single-roomed domicile.

With a flick of the wrist she tossed the handful of mail onto the wobbly card table that also served as the place where she took the majority of her meals, when she wasn’t lounging on her futon, and was about to ignore them as so many bills when something peculiar caught her eye. She glanced back at the pile, frowned, then reached with careful fingers to push through the white envelopes to one in particular, one that was neither a bill nor an annoying piece of junk mail.

It was a letter.

The script was hand-written, in what could only be described as pitiful penmanship, which was, nonetheless, strong and bold in its black ink and deep indentation. Then her eyes fell to the Sacramento return address and her hand immediately began to shake with a surge of emotion that took her completely by surprise.

It was from Tarquin. From her brother.

Her first instinct was to sit down right where she was and read every word. But then another impulse prevailed and before she knew it she had taken up her keys, exited her apartment and was scrambling up the metal steps of the fire escape on her way to the flat roof two floors above.

The breeze was stronger up here than it had been down on the street, but it was nothing unmanageable and she quickly made her way to the one spot in the corner that she most favored. She leaned back against an aluminum vent, feeling the warmth seep through her shirt to touch her skin and braced both of her feet against the inner part of the two-foot, stucco wall that surrounded the edge.

For several heartbeats she stared at the short, thick envelope, almost not quite believing that it was really and truly in her hands. Writing to Tarquin after all these years of silence had been a notion that had taken her by surprise when it first occurred to her the month before, brought about by the capricious sighting of someone in the newspaper who bore the same unusual first name. But once the idea had entered her mind she found she could not dispense of it as easily. It stuck with her, creeping up at the strangest times until she finally had to take action.

Her employment enabled her to locate his present address with relative ease and once she had that in her hand what had been an annoying little urge blossomed into a compulsion too great to be ignored, much as having the knowledge of Jennifer’s book discussion had been more temptation than she could withstand.

So, she’d written to him. The letter had been little more than a note, being that she was not naturally inclined to writing and had almost no clue what she wanted to say to her oldest and now only living brother, other than, Hello, I’m not dead and I’m thinking of you, or words to that effect. It was quite an step for her, particularly as she had for so long viewed his departure from the barrio as a sort of defection for which she had resented him with at first a child’s passion and later with the deeply felt acrimony of an adult.

But, slowly, over time, she began to feel admiration for his decision. Despite the myriad of obstacles in his way, Tarquin Gustavez had left the oppression of the gang-infested community and ventured off in search of a new, hopefully improved, way of life. He had known, better than she had known, that he wanted more out of his existence and had somehow mustered enough courage to at least go for it, no matter what. Where he had found such fortitude at such a young age she could not fathom.

Though she knew he must have changed considerably over the years, she still could only picture Tarquin as she last saw him, as a gangly, dark-haired young man, with flashing white teeth and a protruding Adam’s apple that bobbed whenever he spoke or swallowed. He hadn’t been as attractive as she was or as Luis promised to be, but he was not bad looking by any stretch of the imagination. He was smaller than she and stocky and in that way he apparently resembled his father, Nestor, the man their mother had almost married and, if she was to be believed, truly loved. Resa never knew the name of her own father or the man who planted the seed that was to become her youngest brother; it was all part of their own uniquely dysfunctional family order and about as far from Ozzie and Harriet as one could conceive. And yet, despite the pathetic caliber of upbringing she and her brothers had been given, there still managed to develop a bond of sorts between the siblings that somehow survived through the years, after all the pain and suffering and conflict and death. None was more surprised by this recognition than Resa herself.

But that did not mean she was anything less than distinctly nervous as she stared at the innocent looking piece of mail. It was, after all, entirely possible that Tarquin was writing to tell her to leave him alone. And why not? Why wouldn’t he have so completely divorced himself from his past that he would allow for no reminder whatsoever, including one from his own sister? This could, she realized, be a letter of rejection and she surprised herself in how fervently she hoped that such was not the case.

She slid her finger under the sealed flap and carefully tore open the envelope.

The letter itself was hand-written on several sheets of white, lined paper that were neatly stapled in the upper, left-hand corner. His penmanship was, thankfully, more legible in the correspondence than it had been on the outer portion of the envelope and once her eyes fastened on the first two words, she could not tear herself away.

 

 

Dear Resa,

I’ve started this damn letter three times now because I just can’t get my thoughts organized enough. Your letter caught me by surprise. It’s been a long time and I had pretty much given up on hearing from you, but that’s really my fault, too. I could have made the effort, I know. I’m feeling like a real shit right now for not having tried harder to contact you, but I’m glad you didn’t let that stop you from writing to me. There have obviously been a lot of changes in both our lives since we last saw each other. I know about your prison. I can’t really say I’m all that surprised it happened but I am glad you seem to have turned that into a positive thing. Not many people could do that but you’ve always been really strong, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

A lot of things have happened to me, too. Most important is I’m married. I got married to a woman named Rhala and she’s from India. We met in Junior College and she now teaches science at the Montgomery Elementary School. Also, you should know I have two children, which makes you an aunt. How funny is that? Their names are Justin and Pearl. Justin is the oldest at six and Pearl just turned four last month, November 12th. Luckily they look like their mom instead of their ugly old dad! I’ve enclosed a picture that I took at Pearl’s birthday party.

Resa flipped over to the last sheet of paper to see a computer-scanned image of a small group of children, no more than fifteen in total, gathered around a tawny colored horse, atop of which sat a young girl with long, flowing dark hair and a smile of wild, impudent abandon. Seeing her brought a happy, tingling sensation at the center of Resa’s being. Her niece. She didn’t need to be told that. She instinctively knew and the next sentence confirmed it for her.

Pearl’s the one on the pony and Justin is the one in the wizard hat, which he wears all of the time. Rhala assures me it’s just part of his Harry Potter phase. I hope so. Rhala is a good mother and I try hard to be a good dad. I think it’s especially important since we, you and me that is, didn’t have one growing up. Didn’t have much of a mom either.

Speaking of Mama, I know you don’t keep in touch with her but I think you should know that I finally got her out of East LA. She lives in an apartment in Culver City now. Well, actually it’s more like a home. It’s called the Royal Arms Senior Care and it’s a kind of community that’s real helpful, especially for people with disabilities.

Senior care, she repeated to herself in surprise. Disabilities?

The mere idea struck her as unbelievable. The last image she had of her mother was of a fairly young woman, though, admittedly, already showing the ravages of her brutal way of life. Mentally she calculated that her mother had to be in her early fifties at most and that, to her mind, did not qualify for senior status.

She read on.

See, Resa, Mama’s not doing too well. Seems living the way she did while we were growing up finally caught up with her and took its toll. A couple years ago she had a stroke. It messed with her pretty bad and she now has trouble with her memory. She knows who I am mostly but the kids and Rhala are strangers to her. A part of me thinks this might be for the best. She had a real shitty life, you know? It’s probably better she doesn’t remember much of it now. I’m not making excuses for her or anything. She did this to herself and this is the price she’s paying. But I still feel bad for her and all. I know it’s probably pretty stupid, but she is still my mom, despite doing a shitty job of it. So I look out for her. I’ve been working to get her up here in Sacramento, to a home up here where at least she’ll be closer and I think I’ve convinced her to move. That hasn’t been easy. But it’s been kind of hard having her be so far away. I don’t know if you even want to see her at this point, I understand if you don’t, but if you do, you can. I put your name down on the list at the place where she’s staying. There’s no pressure. I just wanted you to know.

Speaking of where people live, I can’t help but notice that your return address is still real close to East Los Angeles. That makes me a little afraid. Well, maybe not afraid so much as concerned. I had hoped you had gotten yourself out of there by now. When you said you were done with the gangs, I figured you had moved out of there all together. I mean, I can tell you’re not exactly in the same old neighborhood anymore but you sure seem close. I hope you move, Resa. I hope you get out of there and go someplace nice, someplace where you deserve to be. Some people don’t have a problem living where you live but you’re too sensitive for that. I know that must seem weird, me calling you sensitive, but don’t forget I did watch you grow up for a long time. I do know things about you and one of the things I know is you tend to feel things more deeply than most people. You always did. You don’t like to talk about stuff much but you always could sense Mamma’s moods better than me or Luis ever could and you always took things to heart. I think that’s partly why Luis’ death affected you so much. I mean, I was sad, too, but not like you were and it made me feel like I was a cold jerk by comparison. Funny thing was, I never even saw you cry but I didn’t need to. But, the point I’m trying to make is, Resa, I want what’s best for you. I just want you to find what makes you happy. You deserve it. You’re still my baby sister and I love you and miss you, believe it or not. I think you should have what’s best in life and I don’t think you’re going to find it where you’re at. I know you may possibly have restrictions on account of your jail business, but, all I’m saying is if you can get out of where you are, I sure hope you think about doing it. Leaving our neighborhood and L.A. was about the best thing I’ve ever done, outside of marrying Rhala and having the kids. I’ll never regret getting out of that hellhole. I know it seemed cowardly at the time but it was so important to me. I was so afraid of getting caught up in all that shit and I think if I hadn’t gotten out of there I would have, too. I only wish I’d been able to take you and Luis and Mamma with me. I’m real, real sorry about that.

Anyway, I had better stop now or we won’t have anything to talk about and I really would like to talk with you, too. You sound good and that makes me happy. I’m very glad to have heard from you. I swear I just about had to sit down when I realized it was a letter from you that I was holding! I want to talk with you if you’re interested, maybe even get together, if that’s okay. I know a lot has happened between us and a lot has happened in both our lives, yours more than mine but we’re still family. At least, I think so. I miss you, Sis. I’m sorry I’ve been bad about keeping in touch but I hope you’ll let me try and get better at that. My phone number is (916) 555-4825. Feel free to call me. I miss you. Thanks for writing. I hope you write again or call. In the meantime, you take good care of yourself and, above all else, be happy.

Your brother,

 

Tarquin

 

 

She reread the letter twice more, then folded it up, replaced it in the envelope, and held it gently between her hands as she stared out over the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. She was moved on so many different levels by her brother’s words and felt herself on the verge of great emotion, thinking of Tarquin, how he had not rejected her but how instead he seemed willing, even eager, to embrace the idea of their reconciling after all these years of silence. And then she thought of the rest of her family, of all her family. She thought of her new niece and nephew, whom she did not know but whose mere picture managed to evoke a strong, visceral reaction that left her both pleased and hungering for more. She thought of Luis and how much he would have enjoyed being an uncle, perhaps even more than she could enjoy being an aunt. She thought of her own child, the little boy who was out there, somewhere, wrapped up, she prayed, in the embrace of a good and loving family. She even thought of her own mother, the woman who now appeared to be suffering the consequences of her actions, a thought that oddly did not bring an iota of satisfaction to Resa, the daughter who had spent her life reveling in her hatred of the woman she called Mama. And last, but never least, she thought of Jennifer, who was to her as close as family ever could hope to be.

Be happy.

She closed her eyes, feeling the wind more pronounced against her upturned face, and considered those two simple words, contemplated just when in her life she had truly been happy. At once, without effort or provocation, a succession of scenes and images played across her mind’s eye, moments when she had been lucky enough to feel joy, to know contentment and satisfaction. And she recognized immediately the single common denominator in each instance, the uniting principle of her source of pleasure was Jennifer Logan. With her Resa could honestly say she had experienced pure happiness on a variety of occasions. She thought of the time in the car, right before the rain, when she had been more relaxed in longer than she could recall, relaxed enough to lower her guard and to sing, to sing! Amazing. Before then, she hadn’t sung in a great while, hadn’t felt the urge to do something so capricious or carefree but once she spent time with Jennifer, the impulse had been too great to resist. Then there was the moment after the rainstorm when she had awakened to find herself in the younger woman’s unexpected embrace and had gazed down in heart-stopping awe at the angelic countenance of her companion. Resa’s heart ached even now, just thinking about how desperately she had wanted to stay with Jennifer, against all the odds… She remembered the time they peered through the telescope at the stars, with her having been more acutely aware of Jennifer’s presence by her side than the magnificence of the heavens above. And going to sleep the night before then waking up this morning with the subtle awareness of Jennifer beside her, always beside her…

Find what makes you happy, her brother had entreated. You deserve it…

But she did not need to do that, did not need to search for her happiness, did not need to try to find it. Her happiness had already been found. And in that moment as she sat atop the roof overlooking her neighborhood in all its familiarity and peculiarity, holding her brother’s letter with its earnestness and hope and, most wondrous of all, love, she knew with brilliant clarity, just exactly what she needed to do.

 

* * * *

Jennifer sighed and took a sip of her Diet Coke before setting it down on the small, wrought iron table beside her outdoor chaise and closing her eyes against the warmth of the late afternoon sun.

Enduring the trial of a parental visit was always a Herculean-esque feat for her, one that frequently left her drained to the point of absolute exhaustion. It wasn’t that she disliked her parents; she loved them both very much. But there was a smothering intrusiveness to their presence that unfailingly managed to transport her back to her adolescence in all its irrationality and reduce her otherwise patient disposition to one of barely contained petulance. And that was under the best of circumstances.

Fortunately, on this particular day, Barbara and Max Logan were only staying for a few short hours, merely taking time between their flight from Kansas to Japan in order to visit their Los Angeles bound daughter before dashing off on their latest month-long excursion across the Orient.

Traveling had become a way of life for the elder Logan’s. Ever since they came into Nona’s money and Mr. Logan semi-retired from his dentistry practice, the couple who had barely dipped their toes out of their home state suddenly could not be contained. They threw themselves into the art of being a tourist, seeing all the places they had wanted to see the whole of their lives but had never found either the time or the room in the budget to do so, not with four voracious children to manage on what had then been a limited income.

Barbara Logan’s brief flirtation with wanting to be a therapist had put a minor damper on their treks but, once she came to the fairly recent decision that such was not the life for her (which her daughter secretly considered to be a colossal understatement), they again had time to resume their jaunts with newfound vigor. And they always managed, at some juncture along the way, to find a way to see at least one of their children, all of whom were spread out over the country. This time it was Jennifer who received the honors.

The tour of the house, which they had not seen before, had taken about forty minutes, and that was twice as long as necessary due to Barbara spending most of the time either chatting incessantly or telling her daughter various means of potential improvement that could be made. And it occurred to Jennifer as they completed the little excursion, that there was absolutely no trace of Resa Gustavez’s presence to be found at any point along the way. The bed was made, the bathroom tidied, the remnants of their breakfast cleaned up and already on the dry cycle in the dishwasher. Even the scent of her, so heady and distinct, was gone, carried away by the cross-circulation of the open windows and a strong, mid-afternoon breeze. It was as if she had never been there.

Her parents, of course, hadn’t noticed a thing. Why should they? They could not miss what they did not know. Instead, Barbara and Max were caught up in the beauty of her two-storied home, delighting in the fact their daughter had bought it all on her own, something they had been unable to do when they were her young age. And Jennifer accepted their compliments, genuinely delighted by their approval, but there was a part of her that kept subconsciously searching for some trace that had been missed, some sign that Resa Gustavez’s presence had been more than a figment of her imagination, a product of her hope and need. But there was none to be found, nothing extraneous or tangible. Nothing other than what she carried within and, weakly, she wasn’t entirely confident that was enough.

After the tour, all three Logans retired to the back balcony, lounging under the sun and enjoying their drinks.

The back balcony was her favorite part of the house with the manner in which it traveled the width of the first floor, allowing access from the kitchen, the living room or the downstairs guest bedroom. Her first purchase after moving in had been outdoor deck furniture, pieces made of strong redwood and wrought iron, with black, all-weather cushions that would likely last long past when she’d grown tired of them and wanted something new. Though she had only owned the home a couple months, sitting out on the balcony at night had quickly grown into one of her favorite activities. Out here she could relax, soak up the air and feel free…at least when her parents weren’t also present.

Jennifer’s gaze briefly flicked over at her mother before she glanced away. Barbara Kane Logan had been an undeniably attractive girl in her day and had grown, over the years, into an undeniably attractive older woman. She had turned fifty-four on her last birthday but could have easily passed for a good decade younger by those who did not know her true age. Her radiant skin was barely lined and any trace of gray determinedly covered up by twice-monthly trips to the local stylist who kept her short hair close to the natural honey color of her youth.

Maxwell Logan, on the other hand, looked every bit of his fifty-six years, due, in no small part, to his decades long addiction to smoking, which he had only recently (and thankfully) managed to conquer. Her father was not handsome, not as a boy and not now as an older man, but he possessed a warmth and a charm and a twinkle in his deep blue eyes that made one forget that fact almost immediately. And he loved his wife with a sort of blind loyalty that was, often as not, entirely necessary as Barbara’s conduct was frequently somewhat less than impeccable.

They had met simply enough. One night while out at an Italian restaurant with some buddies, young Max Logan had taken a look at Barbara Kane seated across the room with a group of her female friends and decided then and there that he would marry her. Two years of resolute courtship later and he had done just that. Jennifer’s parents had been married for thirty-five years now, a fact that always managed to astound her when she would take the time to consider it, not because they didn’t love each other, but because it was so rare a feat in the confusion of modern times. Their commitment was something to be admired and she did, more than she ever thought possible since now she realized such a basic option was, sadly, no longer possible for her.

Barbara turned a wide smile to her only daughter. “Oh, darling, your house is extraordinary!” she said and Jennifer smiled in return.

“Thanks,” she said with what she hoped was good cheer.

“It’s much nicer than those pictures you sent us of it. And quite spacious, despite the dark paneling in the living room. But you can easily lighten that up with either a new finish or a coat of paint.”

“Actually, I like it,” Jennifer said but, of course, her mother did not hear her, too caught up, as was her way, in the forward momentum of her own racing mind.

“Remind me and I’ll have Gerald give you a call next week for suggestions. You remember Gerald don’t you?”

“You’ve told me about him.”

“He’s the one who redid the house a couple years ago. Wasn’t he wonderful, Max?” Her father didn’t bother to attempt to answer, experience having taught him better. “Just wonderful,” her mother continued. “I mean, sure, he had a little drinking problem but if I had a son like his I’d be inclined to take a nip or two from time to time, too. Did I tell you about his son, David?”

“In great detail.”

“He is just so handsome. I really did want you two to meet, until I found out of course.”

“Mom, he’s a Scientologist, not a Satanist.”

She waved her hand dismissively. “Six to one, half a dozen to the other if you ask me.” Green eyes so like Jennifer’s own turned over the sweep of the canyon. “What a wonderful view. And so little smog today.” She glanced back at her daughter. “Has that been getting better?”

“The smog?”

“You know how clear the skies are back home. It’s so nice to not have to worry about the little things in life, like breathing and water quality and drive-by shootings.”

Jennifer fought to contain her annoyance. If there was a common theme in their conversations over the years it was how much better, cleaner, nicer, happier Kansas was than Los Angeles. It was none-too-subtle attempt to persuade her daughter to come back to the Mid-West, to come back home where she would, no doubt, be safe. Jennifer had grown accustomed to these little asides but that did not lessen her irritation whenever they arose.

She shifted her jaw to one side. “Mom, the whole drive-by thing really isn’t–”

“Have you spoken with Erik lately?” her mother asked, blithely unaware she’d cut off her daughter.

Jennifer cringed, instantly filled with the typical flood of guilt at not being as good a sibling as she would like to be, or, more to the point, as her mother would like her to be. Barbara was forever reminding her daughter about birthdays and holidays and all sorts of opportunities missed or not fully realized, in hopes she would someday get magically better at keeping in contact with her family, and by ‘her family,’ her mother really meant her. Barbara, The Good. Barbara, the Long Suffering. Barbara, the holy Martyr to the Cause (and that ‘cause’ was, not surprisingly, Barbara, the Neglected). But Jennifer managed to do that.

Jennifer cleared her throat. “No. Something happen?” she asked, aware that such a question could be followed with “Yes, he has a terminal illness” just as easily as it could, “No, nothing at all.”

Instead Barbara said, “He’s taking flying lessons, which means Cindy is about to have an aneurysm.”

Jennifer brightened. “Hey, that’s great! Not about Cindy’s looming brain spasm, but about the flying. Erik’s always wanted to do that, ever since he was a kid.”

“So did John Kennedy Junior, and you see where that got him.”

“Mom, Erik’s a big boy and the most responsible person I know. If there’s a precaution, he’ll take it.”

“Staying on the ground is the best precaution.”

“So is never leaving the house and buying all your goods off the internet. That’s the best precaution there is. Then all Erik’d have to worry about is getting hit by a tornado.”

“You’re missing the point.”

“And so are you, oh Control Freak.”

“I am not a control freak.”

Jennifer looked over at her Dad.

“Leave me out of it,” he said, sipping his soda. “I’m too old to go through a divorce.”

She turned back at Barbara. “Mom, the first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem.”

“Right now you’re my only problem. Now, are you going to let me finish my story?”

“There was a story?”

She ignored her daughter. “Erik has started taking flying lessons and Cindy’s upset. You know how she is about planes and all—”

Oh, yes, she did. They all did. From the beginning of their marriage, Erik’s wife had left no doubt about the extent of her “debilitating fear of flying,” frequently crafting stories of legendary proportion in the family lore, especially as she tended to use her phobia as a convenient excuse for getting out of any Logan familial gathering that did not take place in her own home state. She fooled no one. Thus Jennifer found it all the more interesting that her brother should choose flying planes as a personal pursuit; there was something deeply Freudian in it all.

“—and they’re arguing quite a bit about it but no matter what, she says Erik won’t stop taking the lessons. He says it’s his only hobby and he needs the time to himself.”

“Good,” Jennifer said.

Barbara frowned in displeasure. “What do you mean, ‘good?’”

“Just that, for as long as he’s been with Cindy she’s pretty much called the shots in every aspect of their relationship and I’m glad to see he’s standing up for himself and for something that’s important to him. It’s about time.”

Her mother made a face.

“You don’t agree I take it?”

“Honey, marriages are more complicated than who dominates and who doesn’t. They’re about mutual give-and-take and compromise.”

“The key word being ‘mutual.’ Erik has always been the one to give up what makes him happy for Cindy’s sake and I don’t think it’s fair.”

“Jenny, I don’t want to get into this with you.”

“’Get into’ what, exactly?”

“Discussing marriage with you.”

Jennifer frowned. “Discussing Erik’s marriage or the concept of marriage in general?”

“Both.”

“Why?”

“Because you don’t know what it’s like,” she said with a sigh. “The one time you even got close to marriage you ran away.”

Jennifer’s face hardened. “I did not run away. I called off what would have been a huge mistake.”

“And marrying Curtis Eliot, one of the sweetest, kindest, most loyal boys in all the world would have been a mistake?”

“Yes, especially with that cocker spaniel description.”

“Oh, please. I don’t know what you’re looking for, then. Prince Charming is not going to come riding up to you one day on his white horse to rescue you from danger.”

“I assure you, I’m not looking for Prince Charming.”

“Obviously, because you already met him and cast him aside.”

“Mom—”

“Did I tell you I saw him the other day?”

“Who?”

“Curtis.”

Jennifer shifted uncomfortably. “Uh, no.”

“At the AMC Theater complex they just built, the one with stadium seating and 20 theaters.” She gave her daughter a meaningful look. “He wasn’t with Sharon.”

“Cheryl,” Jennifer corrected absently.

“Whatever. The point is they weren’t together. And he asked about you.”

She could feel the first pulse of a headache against her temples. “Because it’s the polite thing to do,” she reasoned.

“I don’t think that’s it. You should have heard his tone and seen how interested he seemed.”

“Mom, Curtis and Cheryl aren’t broken up. She’s in Madrid on business for a month; I spoke to him a couple weeks ago about it–”

“Oh, so you two still talk a lot?”

The headache was surging forward with every indication of taking a left turn into The Land of Migraine. “We’re still friends, Mom. Friends talk.”

Barbara’s lips thinned. “You’re more than just friends, Jenny.”

“Now, Barbara—” Max began.

“Oh, God, please tell me we’re not going down that road again…” A familiar wave of parental tension crested over her and she stood to move over to the edge of the balcony and lean against the railing.

“What road? We’re not going down any ‘road.’ We’re talking about a very significant moment, that’s all. That’s the healthy thing for families to do, after all. Talk. Share. Not keep things bottled inside where they fester.”

Jennifer thought she might throw up but contained herself. “Fine,” she said tightly. “I have no problem with talking. But can we please just pick a different subject other than Curtis?”

“Of course,” Barbara said in her most reasonable tone, then turned around to fell her with an oh-so innocent, “So, are you seeing anyone?”

Jennifer’s breath caught in the back of her throat and stayed there, held captive by the involuntary constrictions that resulted from the sheer, unadulterated panic that ricocheted within. She felt in this single moment that she was nothing but the sum of all her fears, empty to anything other than acute anxiety and turmoil and she didn’t quite know what to say.

You don’t have to tell them now, she reminded herself quickly, but that thought only seemed to acerbate the problem, compound her guilt and cowardice.

Surprisingly enough, it was her father, perhaps sensing his daughter’s discomfort, who spoke up.

“Barbara, honey, let’s back off on the Spanish Inquisition for this little visit, okay?”

Jennifer’s body shook. She could not concentrate on what they were saying, her mind too thoroughly distracted.

You can just let the question slide by and no one will be the wiser. No one will know…

Barbara frowned. “What is everyone being so sensitive about all of a sudden? I asked a perfectly legitimate question.”

Her stomach revolted. Except for me. I’ll know…I will know.

“You know Jenny Beth doesn’t like to talk about certain stuff. Now, let’s not browbeat her while we’re here is all I’m sayin’.”

Why tell them now? You don’t have to. After all, what if she doesn’t come back?

“Okay, maybe you could tell me what I can talk about? What subjects are ‘safe.’” Barbara asked, making little quotation marks.

She might not come back…

“Food.” Max patted his prodigious belly. “I don’t know bout you but I’m hungry as hell. Southwest’s a fine little airline but peanuts aren’t my idea of lunch.”

But…

“And God only knows what United’ll give on the flight over to Tokyo. Probably sushi.”

…that’s not the point…

He shuddered. “Might as well be bait.”

The point is, where is my faith?

“Jenny Beth, do you know of a place where we can get some good Tex Mex?”

Where is my faith?

“Jenny Beth?”

For several seconds Jennifer didn’t move. She stood on her back balcony, which had only a couple hours before been the site of her late breakfast with her new lover, and realized then and there that she had to make a decision. She had to determine what it was that she believed in; in whom was she was willing to trust; where she was willing to place her faith. This moment was, in so many ways and on so many different levels, a test. One she placed upon herself without even realizing it and certainly without intending to do so. But now that it was before her, she knew she had to face up to the situation of her own making and live with the consequences, whatever they may prove to be.

She felt drunk. Dizzy. Disoriented. Her world newly shifting on its axis until everything was askew…

…and she slowly raised her head to look at her parents who watched her with mundane expectation mixed with curiosity. Before she knew it and in an act almost outside a conscious decision, she heard herself saying with more confidence than she truly possessed, “Yes.”

Max smiled. “Good. Let’s go there.”

She frowned at them for a moment, not really understanding the nature or their response until the essence of their conversation penetrated her awareness and she shook her head in frustration. “No, no.”

Whereupon it was their turn to be confused. Barbara Logan looked at her only daughter in exasperation. “Why not?”

“No, not ‘no’ to– I meant, yes—” Jennifer stopped, swallowed hard and valiantly fought to bring herself under control. She took in a deep, calming breath. “What I meant to say is…yes… I am…seeing someone.”

Barbara Logan’s face lit up like a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Square and Jennifer felt a twinge of guilt, knowing that happiness was seconds away from being squelched.

“Oh, Jenny! That’s, well that’s just wonderful.” She clasped her hands together. “What’s his name? How long have you been keeping him hidden from us? Oh, that is so like you to be all closed-mouth about something this important. Is it serious?”

“Yes. It’s– very.”

“Oh, goodness. Marriage?”

“Not in this country,” she muttered, more for her own benefit.

“Why not? Is he foreign? Did you meet him on one of those tours for your book?”

She rubbed the tension across her brow. “Um…no.”

“Come on, Jenny. Tell us how you two met.”

Oh, boy…

Jennifer Logan had always been the sort of person who endeavored to study any potential problems from all angles, ponder the best possible way to address said issue and then attempt to make the appropriate move for a quick and intelligent resolution. But not today. No, definitely not today. Here and now, on what could conceivably be the most important conversation of her life, she was flying by the seat of her pants and praying to God for a less than catastrophic landing. It was a giddying sensation.

“Do you remember the book I wrote?” she asked.

“Of course,” her mother nodded. “It was very successful.”

“Did you ever, I don’t know, read it?”

Barbara had the grace to look embarrassed. “Well, honey, I tried, you know, but I only got about half way through. I’m just not interested in all that gang stuff and all that violence.” She shuddered. “But I do have it and keep it on my bedside table to look at and be so proud of my little baby, the author.”

“I read it,” Max said quietly.

Jennifer glanced at her father, saw the somewhat guarded look that crossed his face and her gut reaction told her that he was closer to cluing in. She decided to help him along.

“It was a true story,” she told him evenly. “All of that, in one form or another, happened to me. Including how I got shot.”

“I don’t understand,” Barbara said, looking between her husband and her daughter. “I thought you were shot during a robbery at that convent you were visiting for a project.”

“That’s sort of how it happened. But I didn’t exactly tell you the whole story at the time.”

“Why not?”

“It was complicated. And I wasn’t quite…feeling up to it.” She looked directly into her father’s eyes. “But, you should know that the writer in the book…was me. And how she got shot is the same way I got shot.”

He stared at her for a long, meaningful moment, as if trying to gauge what it was exactly she was trying to tell him, the subtext of her words. “You were shot protectin’ your…friend?” he said slowly.

“Yes.”

Her mother sat up straighter. “That’s crazy, Jenny. Why would you do something so foolish like that?”

“Uh, Barbara…” Max began, then let his words trail off as if uncertain what was appropriate.

Jennifer considered her mother for a long moment, considered what she was about to say, how she should say it and the fallout that was sure to follow. But then she thought, with an almost giddy sense of inevitability, Sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and told them with unequivocal simplicity, “Because I was in love with her.”

There was no response.

“And I still am,” she finished, then waited for the shit to hit the fan. And, as she suspected, she didn’t have long.

“Her?” Barbara repeated slowly.

“Yes.”

A beat of silence, then,

“Her?”

“Yes.”

“You mean…you mean you love her like a friend, don’t you?”

“That, too,” Jennifer agreed patiently. “But, in this particular instance, that’s not the only way I love her.”

Barbara Logan’s face paled. “Are you saying what– Oh, Jesus, I need to go sit down.”

She stood up and walked back into the house, leaving father and daughter alone in the resounding quiet of her wake.

Seconds ticked by — one, two, three — until whole minutes passed with her father not speaking and Jennifer at a total loss as to what she should say. She was aware only that she felt as if she were tethered to her body by the barest thread that could, at any moment, snap and send her reeling off into the atmosphere like a helium-filled balloon.

I told them, she marveled, in shock, in awe. I told them I’m in love with a woman…and I didn’t die of a heart attack or spontaneously combust…at least not yet.

It was liberating and, at the same time, left her feeling as if at any moment she would turn around to puke her guts up over the side of the balcony, her beloved balcony, until the contents spilled out over the dried grass and puny trees and dusty rocks below. However, she did no such thing. She held strong and glanced at her father.

He looked older all of a sudden, as if a magic wand had been waved over his gray head, with its little bald spot at the back like a monk’s tonsure, and the vitality that usually radiated off him so effortlessly, that which was his defining characteristic, was now gone. Vanished. Stolen.

And it was her fault. All her fault.

She took a breath to speak, though she hadn’t a clue what she could possibly say to alleviate the shock, but Max saved her by speaking first.

“Why don’t you go in and talk to her,” her father said, his voice strained but still calm. “I’m gonna need a minute here.”

Jennifer regarded him closely, looking for some sign as to what he might be feeling but, when she could detect none, accepted his right to process this revelation at his own pace and in his own way. She turned to open the sliding screen door and entered her house.

Standing inside for a moment, she felt as if she were surrounded by tension from every conceivable direction and she suddenly fought the fickle urge to laugh then cry then throw up then laugh again. Finally she just sighed.

“Well,” she mused to herself. “That went well.” But she was fully aware that the discussion was far from over. Indeed, it had only just begun.

She tried to imagine what her parents must be going through and felt a deep twinge of regret.

I’m probably handling this all kinds of wrong, she thought. I probably should have gone through therapy to figure out the best way to approach the situation and then called some sort of “Brady Bunch” family meeting where I announced in the gentlest of tones exactly what I’ve been feeling and how much I need their support and love and…

…they still would have freaked out.

She knew them too well, better than any therapist or counselor and she knew there was no sense in sugarcoating the situation. She just had to go for it and let the chips fall where they may.

Chip #1 was in the living room and, contrary to her declaration, had yet to sit down. Instead Barbara remained standing, one arm wrapped around her waist and the other hand gripping the back of a chair. Jennifer recognized that look of her mother’s, the pinched disapproval that seemed to draw all of her features forward to the center of her face, making her no long appear youthful and vivacious but cold, harsh and imperious. It was the sort of expression that, as a child, usually preceded a spanking and Jennifer cringed inwardly, wishing now more than ever that Resa was there with her, certain she would have been able to draw much-needed strength from the other woman as she stepped forward to engage in what could only be described as battle.

Cold green eyes met hers. “How long have you been waiting to spring this on me?” her mother demanded.

“Not long,” she replied sincerely, leaning against the side of one of her favorite leather chairs. “And there was no ‘springing’ involved; it just happened.”

“Just happened? I don’t understand, how long — has this– have you two– been–”

“Since last night.”

“Only one night? That’s all?” Her face looked hopeful and Jennifer could practically read her thoughts. Perhaps this was only a temporary thing, a phase.

But, it wasn’t.

“No, that’s not all,” she said with more calm than she ever thought possible of herself. “It’s far more complicated than just one night.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We met a year and a half ago, the same week that I had my accident. But we lost touch until last night, when we found each other again and realized that we love each other. Well, I mean, I knew we loved each other the whole time we’ve been apart but she’s a little more hardheaded about certain things. But, the point is, we’re together now and it’s very, very serious.”

“How can you know that?”

“Because I know how I feel.”

“She’s a woman!”

“I’m aware,” she answered drolly.

She heard her father enter the room from behind her and absently noted that he moved to stand beside his wife. His expression was difficult to read, but Jennifer knew enough to recognize he wasn’t exactly on the verge of throwing a party for her anytime soon. Barbara Logan barely acknowledged his presence, her anger too focused on her daughter to allow for much else to penetrate.

The next question out of her mother’s mouth was, “Have you…had sex with her?”

Jennifer came very close to laughing, but instead fixed her with a wry look. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Oh, Lord no! Oh! The thought…”

“Careful,” she said dryly. “It’s contagious.”

“What is?”

“Thinking.”

Her mother stiffened in indignation. “How dare you talk to me like that?”

“Like what?” Jennifer shot back hotly, feeling her anger start to get the best of her, despite her best efforts at composure.

“Like…like…”

“Like an angry adult displeased by her mother’s rejection?”

“I’m not rejecting you. I would never do that. I’m rejecting this, this thing you’ve become.”

“It’s called an individual” she spat out. “You should try it sometime.”

“Don’t patronize me like I’m some small-town hick. I have seen the world. I know all about how other people live.”

Jennifer lost it and suddenly she couldn’t stop herself from saying things she had kept bottled within herself for years.

“That’s a load of crap, Mother, and you know it! You may have done some traveling lately but the only world you’ve seen is the one your guidebooks or tour groups have led you to. You go to all these places and take all those pictures but you retain nothing of the foreign culture. You’ve never been capable of a shred of empathy to lifestyles different from your PTA meetings or Junior League or the occasional wine-tasting event you throw with your Stepford Wives friends and even then you can’t bring yourself to venture out of the realm of Kendall-Jackson! News flash, Mom: Kendall-Jackson sucks!”

“Kendall-Jackson is an excellent American wine!”

“If that’s all you’ve ever tried. But there happen to be a whole host of other labels out there from all around the world with an amazing variety of tastes and as crazy as this may seem to you, some people actually prefer different labels to Kendall- Jackson! Some people raised on American Chardonnay try a Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pavillac and love it!”

“But some of those people used to be perfectly happy with American Chardonnay until their heads got swayed by that goddamn Rothschild…whatever!”

“But how happy were they, really? When deep down they were destined to love that damn Rothschild whatever but had to settle for the average American Chardonnay?”

The two women stared at each other in frothing anger and Max took advantage of the brief break to ask, “We’re not really talkin’ about wines here are we?”

“No!” both women answered at once.

“Didn’t think so,” he said with a nod, and let them resume their argument.

“You’re doing all this to hurt me,” her mother pouted.

“Mom, at the risk of being Copernicus to your world order, the universe does not revolve around you.”

“Your sarcasm is not appreciated.”

“Neither is your judgmental attitude. I know it pains you to consider that your perfect daughter just may be the source of gossip at the next bridge party but avoiding you some embarrassment—”

“More than some,” she muttered.

“–is not reason enough to deny what really makes me happy.”

“You don’t know what makes you happy yet,” Barbara insisted. “You’re still too young.”

“I’ll be twenty-five next week. You were married and had two kids by that time.”

“The world was different then.”

“Different does not necessarily equal better.”

Barbara Logan crossed her arms, her stance one of pure resentment. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you come to Los Angeles!”

Jennifer shifted her jaw to one side. “You didn’t have a choice and I thank God I did come to Los Angeles. Otherwise I would never have met Resa.”

“That’s her name?”

“Yes, Theresa Gustavez.”

“Gustavez? You mean she’s Mexican, too?” Her face looked like she had just tasted a lemon.

“Cuban.”

“Same thing.”

“Unless you’re Mexican or Cuban and then, oddly enough, they’re completely different.” Her upper lip curled in open disgust. “Jesus, Mom, when did you start channeling Rush Limbaugh?”

She threw her hands up in dismay. “I should have known. I should have seen the signs. First you chop off your hair, your long, beautiful hair and now you’re dressing like a man…”

“You bought me this blouse last Christmas,” she said, not bothering to point out the similarity in their hairstyles.

“That’s beside the point. You’re changing.” She sounded wounded and Jennifer felt a pang of remorse for her mother and a little embarrassment at her own out of control anger.

“Mom, I’m the same person I’ve always been. Just because I love Resa doesn’t mean I’m going to break out the Birkenstocks and flannel.”

A stitch of time passed before Barbara asked warily, “Is she like that?”

Jennifer’s brows knitted in a frown. “Like what?”

“Birkenstocks and flannel.”

Jennifer was on the verge of telling her mother to — for the love of God! — move beyond Clichés 101 when something made her stop and before she could assess what that ‘something’ might be, a calm, smoky, wonderfully familiar voice from the doorway answered,

“Not quite.”

All three Logans whipped their heads around to see the commanding figure of Resa Gustavez in the entryway between the foyer and the living room, looking indisputably sexy in her knee-length, clingy black dress as she gazed down upon them with ironic amusement lighting her eyes.

Jennifer’s heart leapt and her smile just about split her face as she took in the sight.

Ah, yes…Birkenstocks and flannel, indeed…
PART THREE
In hindsight, Resa was inordinately pleased with her decision to wear the black dress. It had been a spontaneous choice, one that she couldn’t possibly explain, even to herself, but if the looks she was receiving were any indication, it was the perfect selection.

“My wardrobe is flannel free,” she continued as she stepped further into the room. “And Birkenstocks cost far more than I’m willing to pay for shoes, no matter how comfortable they may be so I don’t have any of those, either. But I do love a good pair of Levis…” She smiled. “…and I’m a big fan of T-shirts.” And stopped a few feet away from the trio, cocking her head to one side in a simple, friendly gesture. “Hello. You must be Jennifer’s parents. I’m Resa. It’s nice to meet you.”

Silence greeted her, deep and heavy with an implication that she was far too astute to misinterpret. Inwardly she sighed.

Resa had had her fair share of hostile greetings, what with the life she’d led. And she had always succeeded in surviving each instance with admirable aplomb, as she knew she would this one as well. Yet of the many antagonistic encounters she had faced in her young and turbulent life none had made her feel quite as uniquely disappointed as did the one before her now.

On the drive over to Jennifer’s apartment she had managed (buoyed by an unusually strong sense of hope brought about in no small part by Tarquin’s letter) to consider the possibility (slight though it may be) that Jennifer’s parents would react to their daughter’s news not as she had envisioned, with negativity and umbrage, but rather with grace and dignity. With love and acceptance. Simply because she was their child, whom they loved. Simply because it was the right and just thing to do.

It was clear such hope had been nothing more than wishful thinking.

Her eyes swept over the Logans who watched her with a noticeable mixture of surprise and apprehension. Obviously things had gone poorly if the way Mrs. Logan’s eyes radiated hostility were any indication. Ironically, Resa could tell if the older woman were relaxed she would have been a reflection of what Jennifer would likely resemble in years to come. Beautiful and refined. Classic.

But not now.

In this unfolding moment, the older woman only succeeded in looking austere and cruel, two words that Resa instinctively knew, should she live to be a hundred, she would never use to describe Jennifer. How very disappointing.

Still, she was stubborn if nothing else and a perverted part of her delighted in poking the displeased couple…if only just a little.

“Jennifer’s told me a great deal about you both,” she said, at last provoking a response.

“Really?” Mrs. Logan said dryly. “We’re just learning about you.” Her disapproving eyes flicked over Resa.

“I told them,” Jennifer explained.

“I gathered,” she replied wryly.

“You must be very happy with what you’ve accomplished here.” Mrs. Logan said, her lip curled in contempt.

Resa came very close to laughing but kept her voice decidedly neutral. “And what exactly have I accomplished?” she asked.

“Corrupting my daughter.”

Jennifer’s entire being tensed to the point of rigidity. “Mother. Don’t–”

Resa reached out to put a hand on Jennifer’s shoulder, effectively silencing the younger woman’s burgeoning tirade, something Resa instinctively knew she wanted to avoid, if possible. Green eyes met hers and a silent communication past between them before Resa turned her attention back to the watchful mother.

“To corrupt implies to deprave and dishonor,” Resa answered with smooth control. “And I would never describe our relationship in those terms.”

“What terms would you use then?” Mrs. Logan demanded. “What politically correct spin would you put on this whole mess?”

Unable to contain herself, Jennifer stepped forward before Resa could restrain her again, her jaw thrust to one side in furious resentment. “How about two people who met and fell in love.”

“Two women,” Mrs. Logan shot back.

“Well, last I checked women were people, though the way your acting right now, I think that might be debatable.”

The older woman was aghast. “How dare you talk to me like that?”

“And how dare you talk to me like that? Or to Resa? In my own house, I might add.”

“Well,” Mrs. Logan countered, her voice lowered an octave to martyr timber. “We can leave, if that’s what you’d like.”

For a long moment no one spoke as the threat hung over everyone’s heads like a guillotine, a threat Resa had frankly been expecting since the conversation began. It was the perfect passive-aggressive tactic and she’d already seen enough of Jennifer’s mother to recognize that as a likely fallback defense.

“Is that what you want?” Jennifer asked at last, unable to keep the raw pain out of her voice and Resa found herself fighting the urge to comfort her partner. Much as it was her instinct to protect Jennifer and much as she felt it her right to be able to physically express her affection, now was unquestionably not the time. That was, if this situation was ever going to end without an all-out Logan Family Excommunication.

“I want my daughter back, that’s what I want,” Mrs. Logan said and for the first time Resa detected a note of something other than bitterness coming from the older woman, something approaching humanity.

Jennifer raised her arms slightly out from her side. “I’m right here,” she said. “I’m the same person I was a half hour ago. I’m the same person I have always been.” She frowned, the barest trace of tears glistening in her eyes. “Can’t you see that?”

Mrs. Logan was clearly doubtful and it annoyed Resa. It took every ounce of self-control not to unleash herself on the older woman as she so wanted to do. But it wouldn’t have been the right course of action, no matter how poorly Mrs. Logan was behaving.

“It’s a sin,” the older woman whispered.

“In whose eyes?” Her daughter sounded exasperated.

“God’s eyes.”

“And did he tell you this personally?”

“It’s stated—“

“—in the Bible, yes, I know. Of course, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, we’d also admit the bible was written by men, not by God.”

“It has His divine hand guiding it.”

“So sayeth the same men who wrote it. Which is always convenient.” Blonde brows furrowed in irritation. “And, while we’re at it, when have you ever been a big proponent of what is and isn’t in the Bible? You’re barely Episcopalian.”

“I go to church more than you know, young lady. Don’t presume to know about me.”

 

“Well, I won’t if you won’t,” Jennifer countered.

 

The two women squared off against each other in mutual antagonism as both Resa and the taciturn Mr. Logan watched on. Then, after several beats, the younger woman’s shoulders slumped slightly in a subtle forlornness that hit Resa like a stab deep in her chest.

 

“Mother,” Jennifer said with sadness. “I have fallen in love with a woman. That’s all. I don’t use drugs. I don’t drink and drive. I have yet to kill anyone. I don’t even cheat on my taxes. I work hard each and every day to be the best person I can be and you know what? I think I do a pretty good job, all things considered. But if you want to throw away our entire relationship because you can’t deal with the fact I’m not going to be the little princess you’ve always envisioned, the one who gets married to the doctor or lawyer or Indian Chief and has three perfect children, then, really, that’s your problem, not mine.” Resa felt her hand grabbed by her partner. “And you can either accept that this is the person I have chosen to be with…” Jennifer drew in a deep, steadying breath. “…or you can leave. The decision is yours.”

 

There was a beat of silence as her words sunk in for all present and Resa found herself unconsciously holding her own breath. She was entirely aware that the manner in which Mrs. Logan handled this moment would be key to the future of her relationship with her daughter. And a little part of Resa somehow managed to remain optimistic, hoping for Jennifer’s sake that the older woman would have the strength and maturity to pull this runaway situation back on track.

 

Alas, that was not to be.

 

Mrs. Logan swung the focus of her attention squarely onto Resa.

 

“I blame you for this,” Mrs. Logan seethed.

 

Big surprise, was what Resa longed to say, but wisely refrained.

 

“You have destroyed my family,” Mrs. Logan continued. “Are you happy? Is this what you wanted? Is it?” Tears slipped down the older woman’s face and Resa had enough compassion to feel the tiniest bit sorry for her, even though the foundation for her grief was her own bigotry.

 

Resa squared her shoulders. “Mrs. Logan, I’m only going to say this once because it really isn’t in my nature to talk more than I need to. But, if anything has been destroyed here, I know it’s not my fault. And it isn’t Jennifer’s either. I know she loves her family, loves you both very much and would do nothing to hurt any of you. That’s just not in her makeup. And it isn’t in mine, either. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to destroy anyone’s family, especially Jennifer’s. But I’m not about to walk away from her just because it might be easier. For everyone involved. Myself included. So if any damage has been caused, it comes from your side, not mine and certainly not Jennifer’s.”

 

If Mrs. Logan’s face had suddenly split open to reveal the frenzied, pulsating physiognomy of a basilisk, the former gang leader would not have been surprised. She was that angry. But, even still, the former gang leader was unprepared for the older woman’s succinct reply of,

 

“Fuck you.”

 

Taken aback, Resa’s eyes widened, quite certain that was the very last thing she expected to come from Mrs. Logan’s mouth. And judging by the shock rippling across Jennifer’s face, it wasn’t what she was expecting, either.

 

“Barbara…” the quiet voice to her left interjected and Resa glanced over to where Mr. Logan stood gazing upon his wife with restrained disapproval.

 

She ignored him.

 

“Fuck. You!” she repeated, with even more venom than before as she took a step forward to challenge the far taller former gang leader with a fierce hatred she could not contain.

 

“Barbara, stop,” Mr. Logan insisted with greater force but she ignored him yet again.

 

“You have taken my-my daughter,” Mrs. Logan continued. “My precious, precious daughter and you–you have destroyed her!”

 

“Barbara–”

 

“Destroyed her!”

 

“Barbara!” He grabbed hold of her arm and spun her around until she was staring directly into his eyes. Her demeanor changed at once, almost as if she were a balloon deflating as she saw something in her husband that caught her up short.

 

In that moment they exchanged the long, meaningful look of which only two people who had known each other for decades were truly capable of sharing. Resa observed the fury dissipate from Mrs. Logan’s features and her breathing slowed markedly from the near panting rage she had been experiencing only seconds before. On some level, it was fascinating.

 

“Your purse is on the entry hall table,” he said in a far calmer tone. “Inside is your cell phone. Go there. Get it. Call for a Yellow Cab to pick us up right now and then wait for me outside on the front steps.”

 

“But—“

 

“I’ll be along in a minute.”

 

She didn’t move.

 

“Go.” He left no room for argument.

 

And with that, the fury that was Barbara Logan abruptly turned away and swept out of the room, not bothering with a backward glance.

 

Even before the older woman was gone, Resa moved to pull Jennifer to her, holding the smaller woman against her body to soothe her pain. She clenched her jaw and rested her cheek against the top of her partner’s head, tightening their embrace.

 

Sensing herself being observed, Resa glanced up and encountered Mr. Logan’s watchful gaze. She met his eyes and used the moment to take a second look at the man whom she had initially dismissed.

 

He reminded her of a character actor out of some television program or movie, the one whose face was always recognizable but whose name never quite registered. In less trying times, she would go so far as to say he even looked kind. Definitely paternal. She could tell he was studying her. Sizing her up. And oddly enough, she received his blatant appraisal devoid of any resentment, knowing as she somehow did, that his scrutiny was born out of the need to protect his daughter. How could she ever resent that?

 

He shifted his attention to Jennifer, blue eyes focused and to the point. “You sure about this?” he asked.

 

Jennifer pulled slightly away from Resa’s embrace in order to better address her father.

 

“Yes. More sure than I’ve been about anything before in my life.”

 

He accepted this with a nod. “It’s not going to be an easy life,” he said. “You prepared for that?”

 

“Probably not,” she confessed, her voice warbling slightly from emotion. “But I love her and won’t give her up, so I don’t have a choice.”

 

He seemed to consider this then glanced back to Resa. “And you… Do you love her?” he asked directly, not bothering with preamble, which she found admirable.

 

She watched him with equal directness. “I would die for her,” she replied.

 

His eyes narrowed, then he caught his lower lip between his teeth, reminding Resa at once of the young woman she held in her arms. It was intriguing to see such a familiar gesture echoed in a man she had only just met.

 

He seemed to recognize her sincerity. “You still doin’ that gang stuff?” he asked next in the same forthright manner.

 

Jennifer pulled back a bit more, though Resa would not release her, and glanced at her father. “How—?” she began to ask.

 

Mr. Logan fixed his daughter with a slightly amused look. “I told you I’d read your book, Jenny Beth. Every word. And contrary to popular belief, I wasn’t born yesterday. Or even the day before that. All I needed to know was in there.”

 

He turned his attention back to Resa and she shook her head at his question. “No, sir,” she said. “I haven’t done that for a long time. And I never will again.”

 

He gave an abrupt nod as though he had already anticipated this answer but felt it his duty to ask the question nonetheless.

 

He regarded her a moment, then frowned in curiosity, another action that she recognized as one Jennifer had inherited.

 

“What exactly do you do now?” he asked.

 

Oh, boy… she thought in bemusement, feeling the tiny prickle of a blush begin to steal its way up her neck. It was a subject she had managed to avoid with Jennifer up until now, not because she was ashamed of her occupation — it was an entirely honorable profession — but because of the reply such a revelation was sure to receive.

 

But, what the hell, she thought.

 

“I work for the Downtown Library,” she informed them, then prayed that she somehow wouldn’t blush further. Which she didn’t…but just barely. Particularly when she felt Jennifer stiffen against her and saw Mr. Logan’s blue eyes widened in surprise, which was pretty much the reaction she had expected. She was, after all, fully aware of the incongruity of her job and her persona and had often marveled at it herself.

 

“You’re…” he began.

 

“…a librarian?” Jennifer finished in disbelief.

 

Resa gave a little shrug. “Technically” she answered with a wry pull to her mouth. “I work mainly in the stacks. Logging in older books and trying to update the computer files. It’s pretty tedious, but it pays.”

 

And keeps me out of the public eye, she finished to herself, knowing that had been the greatest draw for her. The anonymity. The seclusion that came from being buried deep in the bowels of such a mighty and imposing institution.

 

Her first thought upon entering the building itself had been, A person could get lost in here… And that was precisely what she needed at the time. To disappear. Plus, in a subconscious draw that she had failed to realize at first, but slowly came to recognize over the ensuing months, being in the library also meant she was surrounded by books, which in a strange way was like having a little connection to Jennifer. There was a part of her that used to wonder if she would ever see the young author in such a place even though she knew that to be unlikely. The Los Angeles Downtown Library was so vast and her position so obscure that she barely saw most of the other employees and volunteers, let alone many of the visitors. Still, she knew there was always that tiny, optimistic segment of herself that had hoped against all reasoning and personal resolution that she might one day run into Jennifer. Might turn a corner to find the familiar face staring back at her…

 

…and, in a way, she had. When Resa had found the flyer for the book discussion posted in the employee lounge and had been drawn to Jennifer’s book-jacket photo printed up alongside several similar ones of the other authors who were speaking at the same engagement. At the Borders Books and Music.

 

Mr. Logan rubbed the side of his jaw. “Huh,” he said, then gave a little shake of his graying head. “Well, they sure do things different here in L.A.”

 

“I’m also taking some classes,” Resa offered, suddenly and irrationally feeling like a potential suitor wanting to look their best in the eyes of the would-be father-in-law. “UCLA extension.”

 

“In astronomy?” Jennifer asked, smiling in wonder.

 

Resa smiled in return and nodded, her self-esteem tingling at the obvious pride that shone across her companion’s face. Jennifer hugged her tighter.

 

“Oh, baby…” the younger woman whispered, tears spilling out over her cheeks and it took all of Resa’s willpower not to kiss her companion right then and there, something she could tell Jennifer was struggling with as well.

 

“What about you, Jenny Beth…” Mr. Logan asked.

 

“What about me, Daddy?”

 

“Are you happy?” he asked.

 

Jennifer rubbed one wet cheek with the back of her hand and nodded. “Yes, Daddy,” she said. “I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.”

 

He nodded again, a gesture that Resa was quickly recognizing was common. “Well,” he said, with a bit of a sigh. “I suppose that’s all I can really ask for.”

 

Jennifer frowned and sniffed. “I don’t understand…”

 

He gave a tiny grin, the lines beside his eyes deepening. “Darlin’,” he drawled. “One of these days, God willing, you’re going to have kids of your own and when you do you’ll realize that all you really want is for them to grow up and look you in the eye and tell you that they’re happy. And when that day happens, then you know you’ve done your job as a parent. Lookin’ at you right now, underneath all that cryin’ and blotchy skin and snotty nose, well, I can see I’ve done my job about as good as any parent can hope to do.”

 

Fresh tears spilled over onto her face. “Oh, Dad…”

 

He turned his attention to Resa. “And you…just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean I won’t kick your ass if you hurt her, you got that?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Resa acknowledged, doing her level best not to break out into a giddy smile.

 

“Good.” He turned back to Jennifer. “Now, if I know your Mom, and after livin’ with her for all these years I feel pretty safe sayin’ that I know her better than anyone, by the time we land in Sydney she’s gonna feel like a horse’s ass for how she’s behaved. And she’s gonna call you eventually, in a day or two, and she’s gonna hem and haw for as long as you’ll let her before she apologizes and ends up cryin’ like a baby.”

 

“Why do I doubt that.”

 

“You shouldn’t. Look, I know she was harsh on you. On both of you.” He nodded to Resa. “And what she said was hurtful.”

 

“And mean.”

 

“And mean. But you got to understand that she doesn’t take to change real well. Never has. All I’m askin’, darlin’, is don’t be too hard on her. She’s stubborn just like you but she does have a good heart. Just like you. And as much as it may not seem like it right now, deep down she just wants you to be happy too.”

 

“I am,” she said lifting her chin with a trace of defiance.

 

“I know you are,” Mr. Logan said with an indulgent grin. “It’s just gonna take your Mom a little longer to accept that you two have different definitions of ‘happy’. But I love you, Jenny Beth and I’m awfully glad you’re happy.” He frowned at Jennifer’s stunned expression. “What?”

 

“You,” she said in hushed amazement.

 

“What about me?”

 

She shrugged adorably. “You surprise me.”

 

“Why? Just because I voted for Dole and don’t want my taxes raised to high heaven I gotta adhere to all the rules of the Republican Party? Now who’s bein’ prejudiced?”

 

Jennifer stepped into her father’s embrace and hugged him tightly around the neck. A part of Resa melted at the sight.

 

“I love you, Daddy.”

 

He closed his eyes as he held her close. “You fill my heart, Baby Girl.”

 

Resa stood back as father and daughter embraced for several more moments, feeling in her heart a deep sense of relief mixed with joy that Jennifer was not going to be put through the pain of total rejection by both of her parents. But she also experienced a pang of longing as well, a strange if fervent desire to know what it meant to have such paternal love. Something she had been denied the whole of her life. Ahh, what she wouldn’t have given…

 

Jennifer and her father drew apart and he reached out to wipe the tears off her cheeks as she did for him, both smiling at the action of the other.

 

“I’m gonna go see about your Mom,” he told her then.

 

“Okay,” she whispered, her voice hoarse from emotion.

 

He turned to meet Resa’s eyes, some of the warmth leaving his expression, but it was not completely extinguished, for which she was grateful.

 

“You remember what I said about taking care of her.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

He stared at her a beat or two longer, assessing her sincerity, then, seemingly satisfied, nodded and with one last touch upon his daughter’s shoulder, turned to walk out of the room. A few seconds later she heard the front door open and shut, then silence.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

Jennifer heard the click of the front door as it closed and felt herself nearly go faint with a combination of anxiety and relief. Resa came up behind her and two powerful arms closed around her waist, pulling Jennifer tight.

 

“Are you okay?” Resa whispered close to her ear, the warmth sending a tingle down her neck.

 

“Yeah.” She nodded. “At least, I will be soon enough.”

 

Resa tugged her in the direction of the closest couch. “Let’s sit down.”

 

The younger woman complied, following her companion to the sofa and waiting patiently as Resa crossed to the nearby stereo, put in Miles Davis Kind Of Blue CD, and adjusted the volume to a satisfactory level. Seconds later, the familiar jazz tune was gently filling the air, bringing with it a soothing quality for which Jennifer was entirely grateful.

 

Then Resa was beside her again and Jennifer curled herself up beside her friend’s much larger frame, enjoying the feel of strong arms around her shoulders. She rested her head in the crook of Resa’s neck and they listened to each other’s breathing mingle with the music as the minutes slipped away.

 

There was too much she needed to process and as a consequence her mind went blank. She closed her eyes and just allowed herself to feel, to experience the wonder of someone else taking care of her in her time of need. Someone who loved her. She had always considered herself so damnably independent that it surprised her to no small degree how grateful she was for the presence of another on whom she could lean with such completeness. She felt almost unworthy, as if she had been given a gift by mistake and was waiting for the real owner to come forward to claim their rightful possession. Not that she would ever give up what she had without a fight…

 

Resa’s fingers gently massaged the tension that gathered along Jennifer’s shoulders, and the younger woman felt herself slowly begin to relax. She found herself floating between sleep and consciousness, for how long she did not know, but her mind slowly allowed itself to wander and she soon found her attention directed towards the events that had just transpired.

 

Had she been given all the time in the world to envision how the revelation with her parents would have unfolded, she honestly wouldn’t have dreamed up what actually took place. Her mother’s actions shocked her. They were so extreme, so hateful that Jennifer was left in a state well beyond hurt. Yet her father’s reaction left her equally astonished. She had known him always to be a simple man with deeply conservative ideals. My God, when she’d told him that she voted for Bill Clinton in both presidential elections she thought the man was going to have a stroke. Her mother, however, had supported her right, if not her choice, and the two women had joined forces in a lengthy ideological debate one Thanksgiving that was still discussed to this day.

 

So, when had things flipped around? she wondered. When did Mom become so intolerant?

 

A sound outside reached them, the sound of a car approaching. Both women listened intently. A couple moments passed, a door closed and then the car drove away, the noise gradually lessening until only a type of hush remained.

 

They’re gone, she realized and a part of her wanted to cry anew. She was about to resist the impulse, already afraid she was being too weak, when Resa’s hand cupped the back of her head and held her closer. The renewed contact helped her to release her emotions and allowed her the freedom to let loose without any concern of how it might be perceived.

 

For several minutes she let the tears flow, though she did not in fact weep. That wasn’t what she needed, not at this moment. She was too angry, too irritated and offended by her mother’s behavior to blubber and sob. Besides, a part of her knew her father was right, that her mother would calm down in time and come to the inglorious conclusion that she’d made a horrible mess of things. It was a typical pattern of behavior, but that didn’t make it acceptable. No, this would not be a situation out of which Barbara Logan could extradite herself with anything less than full repentance.

 

Resa rubbed her chin against the side of Jennifer’s face and then placed a warm, comforting kiss upon her cheek.

 

Thank God she came back, echoed softly in the back of Jennifer’s mind and she remembered anew the trepidation she had experienced at thinking that such might not be the case…

 

She pulled away slightly and looked into her partner’s eyes.

 

“Hi,” she said simply and Resa smiled.

 

“Hi yourself.”

 

“You came back.”

 

“Yep.” Resa nodded her dark head decisively. “That I did.”

 

Jennifer smiled, her heart full. “I’m glad,” she replied, then tipped her head to one side, suddenly curious. “But, why did you? I mean, I thought you said you weren’t going to be here when I told them.”

 

Resa lowered her eyes a moment. “I know and I’m sorry about that. I got home and thought about it and…I realized I was wrong.” She brushed a stray tendril off Jennifer’s forehead, then left her hand against the side of her face. “You asked for me to be with you and that’s all that matters. Nothing else.”

 

“And you were.”

 

“Eventually. Sorry I wasn’t better about the timing.”

 

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jennifer said. “I think you had excellent timing.” She ran a hand over tired, swollen eyes, her energy spent from the ordeal. “How much did you hear?”

 

“Enough. The front windows were open and I could hear you two arguing when I approached. When I got close enough I heard the words Mexican and Cuban and my name and I knew then for certain that you’d already told them. So I came in.” She frowned a little. “You should make sure you lock your front door, you know.”

 

“Yes, ma’am. Continue”

 

“I wasn’t sure if I should just come in like that, so I hung back for a second, but then I heard things get increasingly…um, heated and the next thing I knew I was walking into the middle of everything. I hope you don’t mind.”

 

“Oh, no. No, not at all.” She let out a small, exhausted chuckle. “Actually, you couldn’t have planned it better.” She glanced briefly at her companion’s attire and grinned. “Particularly in that dress.”

 

“Do you like it?”

 

“Very much so.” She felt the stir of desire working its way past her earlier aggravation to break the surface and it surprised her a little, this despite the fact that she had spent the better part of the past day doing her best to satisfy her sexual appetite. Such an abiding hunger was new to her, so much so it felt surreal. Never before had she been like this, been so aware of her body and its needs. In a way it was like being an adolescent all over again, with the adolescent desires she had never truly explored.

 

“What?” Resa asked, blue eyes narrowed with suspicion.

 

Jennifer shrugged, an unexpected sense of giddiness sweeping over her, drawing her away from the resentment and anger that had dominated her thoughts only moments ago. Without stopping to think, she leaned forward to lay a kiss against Resa’s full lips, reveling in the way her partner responded without hesitation. Emotions gathered in the center of her chest, pushing against the inside of her ribs until she felt as if she might burst with the need of it all. Well over a minute passed as they indulged in one another, but both mindful that now was not the time to let passions go unchecked.

 

When they broke apart, Resa gazed down upon her with a wry smile. “Remind me to wear this more often,” she murmured in a throaty voice.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Jennifer responded with a giggle and kissed both of Resa’s flushed cheeks, then rubbed her forehead against her partner’s neck like a kitten. “Where’d you get it?”

 

“Left over from my darker days,” she said lightly. “I tossed out most of everything else, especially my wardrobe. But I liked this dress. So I kept it.”

 

“Good call.”

 

“Birkinstocks and flannel…” Resa scoffed.

 

“Actually,” Jennifer grinned sheepishly. “I own a little of both. But don’t tell Mom.”

 

“Oh, I don’t imagine I’ll be talking with her anytime soon.”

 

“No,” she agreed, her voice newly flat. “I don’t suppose you will.” She leaned back against the sofa, staring up at the high ceiling.

 

“How do you feel?” Resa asked.

 

There was a good half-minute of silence before Jennifer answered, “Mostly relieved. Like this huge weight is off my shoulders and I can breathe again…” She frowned. “But, at the same time, I’m…a little sad, too.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I know I hurt them, and I don’t want to do that.” She placed her hands over Resa’s. “I love them. They have all sorts of idiosyncrasies and issues, like everybody else, and they can drive me absolutely crazy at any given moment. But I still love them.”

 

“I know…Are you glad you told them?”

 

“Yes. Without question.” She glanced at Resa and then down, feeling the suggestion of a blush drift up her neck. “I almost didn’t.” Resa remained silent, waiting for her to continue. “I came this close to chickening out…but then, I realized that the only thing holding me back was my own fear.”

 

“Fear of what?”

 

Jennifer paused, battling the embarrassment that beset her. “You,” she whispered. “That you weren’t coming back.” She peered up at her friend through half-lowered lids. “Lame, huh?”

 

“No.” Resa shook her head, her eyes softened with understanding. “Not at all.” She squeezed her partner’s hand. “What made you change your mind?”

 

“I realized that to not tell them would have meant I didn’t have faith in you. In us. And that would have been wrong. I guess part of having faith is the not knowing before doing but doing it anyhow.”

 

Without losing eye-contact, Resa raised Jennifer’s hand to her lips and kissed it gently. “It’s called courage,” she said.

 

Jennifer shrugged. “I didn’t feel courageous. Just mostly…” She scrunched up her face. “…nauseous.”

 

Resa chuckled. “Poor baby.”

 

“I’m better now.”

 

“Good.”

 

They sat for several moments as the music flitted around them, dispelling, at least for the moment, the lingering traces of hostility that coursed through Jennifer’s body.

 

“What do you want to do now?” Resa asked at long last.

 

“You know, I honestly don’t care but I’ll tell you one thing…” She turned to face Resa. “I have to get out of this house!”

 

Her companion laughed. “Feel trapped, do you?”

 

“Like a rat. In a cage. Not…” she added a shade mischievously. “…that it hasn’t been very fun at times.” She smiled in such a way so Resa knew exactly to what she was referring and Resa returned her grin

 

“Yes, but even the horny need to eat,” she replied and Jennifer laughed at that. “You hungry?”

 

Jennifer nodded emphatically. “Yes. Food is good. I’m a fan of food, and eating in general, but especially at this moment. There’s something so very depleting about having an all-out war with one’s family.”

 

“Yep. Any suggestions?”

 

“Ooo!” Jennifer’s face alighted. “Actually, I do…”

 

 

* * * *

 

The December sky was freshly darkened, having just passed from the last stage of deepest indigo to full-on blackness, and though it was still fairly early by the time they made it out of the house, the tranquil hush that accompanied nighttime had already taken hold.

 

It was one of those rare occasions when the wind blew enough to tidy up the city air, leaving a perfectly fresh composition upon which the stars could twinkle and the Man in the Moon could puff out his mighty chest so that whomever should chance to behold his honey-colored fullness was left duly impressed. Los Angeles, for all the disrespect it garnered, could be magical when the effort was made, when it had the sense to dust off the smog and grime and pollution, and allowed the sparkle, the genuine beauty, to make its way to the fore. Tonight was such an occasion and Resa hoped it boded well for the rest of the evening, that everything would remain as peaceful as the environment around them. But knowing their track record, she wasn’t about to place any bets.

 

She sat in the passenger seat of Jennifer’s new silver Lexus LS 430 (“Well,” the younger woman had reasoned when Resa had raised one very inquisitive eyebrow. “I did have to replace the Land Rover…”) and watched surreptitiously as her companion handled the car with convincing ease. Jennifer’s hands, though small, were strong, as she well knew, and commanded the control of the car with unconscious authority.

 

By tacit agreement, neither spoke as they made their way to the restaurant. Only the hum of the car filled the interior as it sang along the road, with neither passenger nor driver particularly wanting to disturb the peacefulness. It was a rare moment of quiet in what had thus far proven to be a very noisy day.

 

After several minutes (with Resa having paid attention to none of their passing), Jennifer pulled the Lexus off La Cienega west onto Santa Monica Boulevard, drove a couple blocks and, apparently having properly appeased the Parking Gods, found an empty meter across the street from their destination: a restaurant called Benvenuto.

 

A wry smile hovered at the corner of Resa’s mouth.

 

Despite having spent all of her life in Los Angeles and despite having explored the vast majority of the city during her various exploits with Alfons, Resa Gustavez could honestly say she had very little knowledge of the particulars of West Hollywood, which was, as she well knew, ground central for the gay and lesbian community.

 

It would appear that was about to change.

 

As Jennifer checked her lipstick and eye shadow in the visor’s mirror, Resa glanced out the passenger’s side window and found her attention focused on two gay men, obviously a couple, strolling down the street while displaying an open affection for each other. A pat here, a nudge there, the total absence of body space. They were young and handsome and seemingly carefree and she could not tear her eyes away, though she was unconscious just then of why. Perhaps sensing her gaze, both men looked at her and she automatically smiled. The smaller man grinned in return, then winked and grabbed his boyfriend’s hand before sauntering off down the boulevard to disappear into the night.

 

Resa watched them until they were out of sight, then dropped her attention to where her fingers played with the door handle and wondered a bit at the interaction. They seemed so at ease, entirely comfortable in their own skin. She liked that. Liked the confidence and the outward display of inner strength, for even though this part of town had been staked out by the gay and lesbian community as their own personal area, it wasn’t a guarantee of sovereignty, and it didn’t entirely eliminate the inherent complexity being ‘different.’

 

Resa frowned a bit to herself. After all, she had never before taken issue with being different. For any reason. Indeed, there were times when she rather enjoyed being the outcast, reveled in it. But this situation she now found herself in was unlike any other she had ever before faced. It was all new and newness was often by its very nature a bit daunting, even for one as bold and daring as she. And yet, upon closer examination, she felt a stirring within her belly, the unmistakable stirring of excitement at being given a challenge that she had never before faced. In the last year and a half, challenges were the one thing she had studiously worked to avoid, having resigned herself to the most boring – and therefore in her reckoning safe – lifestyle she could imagine. But now she found she faced one of the most grueling tests she could have ever conceived for herself – the test of her own identity – and she felt…

 

…oddly invigorated.

 

Interesting.

 

Jennifer turned to her and asked, “Ready?” in her best perky attitude.

 

“Sure.” Why not? she finished in her own mind and exited the car.

 

With the coming of the evening came a cooling of the nighttime air though it was still quite warm for the heart of winter. Resa’s long, dark coat fluttered against her bare legs and her high-heels tapped agreeably against the cement sidewalk. Jennifer moved beside her and slipped her arm through the crook of Resa’s, bringing their bodies close together in a way quite similar to the two men she had observed only moments earlier. She found it most pleasing.

 

“West Hollywood,” Resa murmured wryly as they crossed the street. “You wasted no time diving right in.”

 

Jennifer just smiled and put an extra zip into her hop up onto the curb. A few minutes later they entered the dimly lighted interior of the restaurant.

 

“Hold on a sec…” the younger woman said and broke away from her partner to commandeer the attention of the handsome African American maître d’.

 

Resa took the opportunity to absorb the ambiance. It was a fairly quaint eatery, which from the outside somewhat resembled a two story house. The interior of the bottom floor had a slightly more than casual atmosphere as attractive waiters and waitresses in white shirts and black slacks buzzed past the mostly two-person tables that were, she noted in passing, primarily occupied by an upscale gay and lesbian clientele. She found herself drawn to the restaurant’s simplicity and relaxing elegance…as well as the rich aroma of garlic that poured from the open kitchen to hang thick in the air. Her mouth began to water of its own accord. Oh, how she did love garlic…

 

“Come on,” Jennifer said as she returned. “They have a table for us in the corner over there.”

 

“Great,” Resa replied, hunger getting the best of her. She followed Jennifer and the maître d’ to an intimate table in the corner close to the small bar area, and held out her companion’s chair before taking her own.

 

“Man, I’m starved,” Jennifer said as she perused the menu with voracious eyes.

 

“I’ll try to keep my fingers away from your mouth until you’ve eaten,” Resa murmured, her own eyes devouring the menu selection.

 

“Very funny…although probably a wise idea.” Less than fifteen seconds passed before Jennifer announced, “Okay, I’m getting lobster ravioli and starting with a salad.”

 

Resa peered over the top of the menu. “That was quick. I haven’t even finished reading the menu yet.”

 

“Oh, I’ve been here before.”

 

“Really? When?”

 

“A few weeks ago. Do you want some wine? Merlot or Cabernet?”

 

“You decide.” Resa’s eyes narrowed in curiosity. “How often have you come to West Hollywood?”

 

Jennifer shrugged. “I drive through all the time. It’s in the middle of everything.”

 

“No, I mean, how often do you come here?” She waved her hand around. “To the gay part of town.”

 

“I don’t know, a few times.” Jennifer frowned. “Why do you ask?”

 

“I’ve never been here before.”

 

“To West Hollywood?”

 

Resa nodded.

 

“Never even drove through?”

 

“No, I’ve driven through, of course. I’ve just never stopped, never done anything.”

 

“Were you avoiding it?”

 

“No. I’ve simply never had the reason to look around.” Resa tipped her head to one side. “Have you?”

 

“I’ve driven through before, a million times. But I haven’t really ‘done’ the scene if you know what I mean.” Resa noted that her friend’s cheeks grew a shade pinker.

 

“Then what made you decide to come here tonight?”

 

Jennifer chewed the side of her mouth a moment in an overt sign of contemplation. “Well, I suppose if I really thought about it, it could be a reaction to the fight with Mom. My wanting to assert myself in an act of defiance by coming someplace…” She hesitated and her blush deepened.

 

“Gay?” Resa finished for her.

 

“Yeah.” She nodded and Resa watched the embarrassed flush turn Jennifer red. “Gosh, you know, that’s still hard for me to say so casually.” Green eyes focused on the empty plate before her as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. “Weird huh? I just had a knock-down, drag-out with Mom on this very subject but when it comes to me saying it for myself…”

 

“It’s difficult.”

 

“Very.” She sighed deeply, looking almost ashamed. “Much more than I ever would have thought.” A humorless chuckle escaped her. “Not that I really gave it much thought. Well, I mean, before…”

 

“Me.”

 

“Yeah. I know it’s crazy, but I never really considered the possibility for myself before, never thought I might be…gay…until today.”

 

Resa’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Today?”

 

“Yeah. Even while we were apart, I just never gave the same-sex thing much consideration. You were just you and I loved you. Not your gender.” She gave a little shrug. “In retrospect, it’s embarrassingly unenlightened of me. I mean, it’s probably because we hadn’t actually had sex until last night, never actually crossed that line. But, since we have…well, let’s just say the questions have been coming fast and furious.”

 

“About your sexuality.”

 

“Pretty much. Other things, too.”

 

“Such as?”

 

At that moment their waiter, a tall, strappingly handsome young man with enough flair for drama to safely conclude he was an out-of-work actor, made his appearance at their table, his hazel eyes properly contrite.

 

“So sorry for the delay, ladies,” he said breathlessly, hand to his chest in dismay. “This is the crazy hour when all the lovelies descend to devour. I’m Kip, your waiter, and I see you already have your waters. Is there anything else I can get you?”

 

“Yes.” Jennifer grabbed the wine menu, focusing on the selections, and, Resa suspected, somewhat relieved to have been given a brief reprieve from the subject at hand. “We’d like a bottle of the Treana, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1997.” She looked to Resa. “Do you know what you want yet or do you need more time?”

 

“No. You go ahead, order.”

 

“Okay. I’m going to start with a dinner salad and then have the lobster ravioli.” She handed the menus to the waiter and turned her attention to Resa.

 

“And I’ll have two orders of crab cakes for appetizers, the swordfish with a baked potato and the vegetable risotto for entrées.”

 

Kip gave her a look. “And do you have a wooden leg that you can eat all that and look so fabulous?” he asked dryly.

 

“Yes I do,” Resa replied with equal deadpan.

 

“Then, my, my, all hail the progress they’ve made in prosthetics,” he quipped and they all three smiled. “All righty. I’ll just get these to the lovely boys in the kitchen and be back in a flash with your wine.”

 

With that Kip moved off and when the two women returned their attention to each other, Resa sensed her companion’s sudden discomfort.

 

“What?”

 

“It’s funny,” Jennifer mused. “The first thing I thought when I saw him was, ‘Could he be more gay?’ And then I felt guilty for even thinking that, like I’m suddenly on his team and yet here I am thinking the same things that if they were thought about me, I’d be upset. It’s like I’d betrayed him and–and …does this make sense?”

 

“Absolutely. There are a lot of prejudice that exists out there. Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end, it doesn’t matter, you’re still gonna feel its effect. And you shouldn’t feel bad. This is all new for you, for both of us–”

 

“Really? For you, too?”

 

“Of course. I’ve never spent time in West Hollywood.”

 

“But you’ve been with other women. Right?”

 

Resa shifted her position in her chair. “Yes. But that was different.”

 

“How?”

 

“Because that was just sex for sex’s sake. It didn’t mean anything. And, as a consequence, it had no impact on my life. It was like a nice dinner. I ate, I enjoyed, I moved on. It was nothing like what we have.”

 

“Oh, I know that.” She waved Resa off with an unconscious lack of bother that the older woman found deeply amusing. “But, I’m talking about the fact that you’ve at least entertained the notion of yourself being something other than flat out, down the line heterosexual.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And I haven’t. Ever. Until now.”

 

“But now that you have…”

 

“It scares me. I know it shouldn’t, and I know all the reasons why it shouldn’t. I’ve had arguments with friends and family members about gay and lesbian rights. I’ve been the so-called liberal black sheep of the family for a long time. But, now that it’s me…that it’s my life and not some hypothetical figure…well, it’s a lot harder than I could have ever imagined it would be. And I’m not even done with the first day.” Jennifer rubbed the crease between her brows as if trying to remove some unseen blemish from her forehead. “I am such a coward.”

 

“Don’t. You’re anything but.” Resa reached out to take hold of Jennifer’s wrist and draw her hand away from her face, bringing it to the table and into her own much larger palm. “It’s all right to be scared, honey. I am.”

 

Jennifer’s eyes widened in astonishment. “You are?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Why are you scared?”

 

“Because our being together is never going to be easy. I thought about that very fact earlier today, after I left you. And it wasn’t a fun reality to face, either. Frankly, it left me questioning my judgment, whether my being with you is just selfishness on my part, whether it would be better for us to—“

 

“No!”

 

Resa smiled gently. “I know.” She gave Jennifer’s hand a light squeeze. “I know. But it’s still an issue in our relationship that most everyone else will never have to consider. And that right there pisses me off. Scares me, too. Just by the nature of the world around us means we aren’t going to have as easy a go of it, not as easy as other people and it makes me feel…uncomfortable when I think of all the bullshit you’re going to encounter. Me? I can handle it. I’ve been through much worse. But you… Oh, baby, you shouldn’t have to deal with any of that and I wish to God that I could protect you from it. But I can’t. And that’s what scares me.”

 

“The difference is, you’re scared for me…and so am I. Which, when you think about, is really shitty and selfish. I’m scared because I don’t want to have to deal with all the looks I’m going to have to get. Not necessarily from my family, although that’s going to end up being a consideration, but from total strangers, too, like when we hold hands as we walk down the street and people look at us and know instantly. And I’m scared about all sorts of other things that I can’t even imagine yet, all those ‘what-if’ factors that are out there, somewhere in my future, just waiting to take me by surprise.” She sighed dramatically. “I feel so utterly unprepared and, God, I’m whining like a three year old!”

 

“You’re being honest. It’s good.”

 

She peeked up at her. “Promise?”

 

“I promise. Few people can be as open with their own self-doubts as you are.”

 

“That’s because I have so many,” Jennifer said with a self-depreciating glint to her green eyes.

 

“No more than the rest of us.”

 

“So says the woman brimming with self-confidence.”

 

“Brimming, huh?” She smiled and looked up as Kip approached with their bottle of wine and two long-stemmed glasses in his hands.

 

“All right, ladies. Here we go. An excellent selection, I might add,” he said as he poured a dollop into Jennifer’s glass then waited for her to give her approval. She sniffed the bouquet and took a sip, her eyes closing slightly in appreciation, which Kip rightfully took as acceptance and poured both women’s glasses. “Be back in a bit with the appetizers. Two orders of crabcakes, yes?” he asked Resa.

 

“Yes. Two.”

 

“Oh, how I do envy you,” he said before departing.

 

Both women smiled then Jennifer cupped the bell of the wineglass and raised it. “Here’s to us,” she said.

 

“To us,” Resa repeated and their glasses clinked. “And to the future.”

 

Jennifer’s face softened. “If someone had told me yesterday that I’d be here with you now, I would have thought they were crazy.”

 

“It’s amazing how quickly things can turn around.”

 

“And to think I almost didn’t agree to go to Borders last night.”

 

“Why not?’

 

“I’d just been to a whole ‘talk-to-the-author’ thing in San Francisco and I was tired. But my agent convinced me this one would be worth it. Boy, was he ever right.”

 

“What’s your agent’s name?”

 

“Sal Torber.”

 

Resa raised her wine glass. “To Sal Torber. God bless his powers of persuasion.”

 

“To Sal.”

 

They clinked their glasses once again and sipped the wine. Resa immediately responded to the rich taste. Alfons had made it a point to instill in her from the very beginning of their relationship together the finer elements in life, believing as he did that one had to be familiar with wealth and privilege and all that it entailed to be able to fully achieve it. Wine tasting was just one aspect of that (sometimes dubious) education.

 

“This is excellent,” Resa commented.

 

“I’m glad you like it.”

 

“Have you always been a wine connoisseur?” she asked, and was then struck by the realization of how much she still had yet to learn about her companion. It was a shade jarring when considered from an outside perspective. But theirs was by all accounts an unusual relationship and she had already come to accept that.

 

“No. In fact, I’m just learning. Ian is helping to teach me.”

 

Resa frowned. “Ian?” The name was unfamiliar to her.

 

“Ian Hendricks. My professor from St. Mary’s. Father Hector’s friend.”

 

“Oh, right.”

 

“He introduce me to Calvin Dutton, a publisher friend of his, which is how I got my book published despite being a complete neophyte. So I’m totally in his debt. Plus, Ian’s been a good friend to me.”

 

“Oh, really?”

 

From somewhere in the vicinity of Left Field came an utterly irrational wave of jealousy. Fortunately at that moment a second waiter delivered their order of dinner salad and crab cakes, leaving Jennifer completely ignorant of the emotion as she picked off the various unwanted garnishes, a small, red tomato and shredded purple cabbage, and then helped herself to a bite of Resa’s appetizer.

 

“Yep,” Jennifer continued. “Which is funny since he was my most difficult professor in school. He used to pick on me like nobody’s business but now he says it’s because he thought I had talent and he wanted to work out all my lazy habits. I wish he would have made that a little more evident at the time because, frankly, he was a pain in my ass. Still without him I never would have had to write that book in the first place so I won’t complain. Much.” She winked and swallowed a bite of salad, then waved her fork as preamble to her next comment. “You know, he’s the one who brought me here a couple weeks ago, to Benvenuto.” She frowned a bit in sudden realization. “Come to think of it now, I bet he was trying to introduce me to this area for a reason.”

 

“Because…?”

 

“Because of what he read in our story. Honestly, the more I think about it the more it amazes me that anyone could read what I wrote and not know I was in love with you. It’s so blatant.” She let out a droll chuckle. “Heck, even my Dad got it.”

 

“He’s a smart man.” Resa said, then gave her a look. “You know, I envy you.”

 

Jennifer frowned. “Why?”

 

“Having a father like that. Hell, having a father at all.”

 

Resa took a long drink of her wine, her eyes drifting off without focusing on anything in particular.

 

“You know nothing about your father?” Jennifer asked.

 

“No. Nothing.” She clenched her jaw, working through the nebulous sense of dissatisfaction churning within her. “Mamma told me nothing. I’ve always had to guess.”

 

“So, you and your brothers all had different fathers.”

 

“Yeah. Three kids, three dads. Only Tarquin got to know any specifics about his Papa.”

 

“Why is that?”

 

“Mamma claimed his father was her one true love. But he got killed. Not in the usual way, no violence or dramatic gun battles or anything like that. His appendix ruptured and he had to go to three different hospitals before anyone would take him because he didn’t have insurance. The delay killed him. He was maybe twenty.”

 

Jennifer pressed her hand to her mouth. “Oh my God, that’s terrible.”

 

Resa shrugged. “That’s a part of life where I come from.”

 

“Your mother must have been devastated.”

 

Resa frowned, forced for the first time to consider the event from her mother’s perspective. “Yeah.” She stabbed at her crab-cake. “In more ways than one.” She swallowed a bite and set her fork back on the plate. “Mamma had just had a baby and didn’t have a way to support herself. His parents were dead and she had too much pride to go to her parents for help at that point. She went later, after she got pregnant with me and my Grand Ma, good Catholic woman that she was, convinced her to not have an abortion. Probably would have been better for her if she had.”

 

“I’m glad she didn’t.”

 

“Me, too,” she agreed with a crooked smile.

 

Jennifer took another sip of her wine, then set the glass back on the table. “Wow,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s so interesting.”

 

“How so?”

 

“I don’t know.” She shrugged, the top of her nose scrunching up in contemplation. “I suppose it’s because you’ve said little about your mother. She seems so…mysterious I guess.”

 

“She lives in Culver City,” Resa murmured sardonically. “Not a lot of mystery about that.”

 

Honey blonde eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Culver City? How do you know that? I thought you weren’t in contact with her.”

 

“I’m not. I haven’t spoken to her since I was fifteen, when I came back to the apartment to pick up the last of my things before moving in with Alfons. She was drunk out of her mind, sitting in that pig-sty of a living room, eyes glazed over. And you know what her last words to me were? ‘Don’t let the cat out.’ Can you believe it? She was more worried about that fat cat than she was about her own daughter going to live with a murderous drug lord.” She rubbed a couple fingers over her eyebrows. “Jesus…what a mess she was. Hell, what a mess she still is.”

 

Jennifer leaned forward and put an elbow on the table. “How do you know she’s still a mess?”

 

Resa’s mouth puckered in consideration for a moment, then she said, “I got a letter from my brother Tarquin.”

 

“When?”

 

“Today.” She reached into the deep pocket of her long overcoat to extract the note, folded tight as if to keep the words from escaping. She’d brought the correspondence along on impulse, uncertain whether she would show it to Jennifer but oddly compelled to do so, if the opportunity presented itself. “I found Tarquin’s address and wrote him about a month ago. I don’t know what I was expecting. Anyway, this was in the mail when I got home earlier.”

 

She handed it over to Jennifer’s outstretched hand then excused herself to make her way to the bathroom and give her friend time to read.

 

 

* * * *

 

By the time Resa returned several minutes later, their appetizers had been cleared away, their entrees served and Jennifer had finished with Tarquin’s letter. Before Resa’s return, however, the younger woman had a few minutes to herself, which she used to contemplate the full meaning and the potential impact of what she had just read.

 

Resa had made contact with her family. She had located her brother, found out she had a niece and a nephew, and had been given her mother’s present address. It was a twist Jennifer hadn’t foreseen, one that hadn’t even entered the sphere of consideration. When she would allow herself the rare occasion to picture what Resa might be up to in their time apart – if she even entertained the notion that the other woman might be alive at all – she had always envisioned the former gang leader embroiled in some highly dramatic turn of events, much like the ones that had ruled her life up to the fateful moment of their separation. But in all her suppositions, in her many wild and clever imaginings, she never had conceived that Resa would have been a librarian living in downtown Los Angeles who would take the time to go in search of a member of her family. It was strangely incongruous with the woman’s awesome, kinetic reputation…and yet, when viewed in retrospect, especially from one who knew her on such an intimate level, there was an appropriateness to her actions. It was as if the initiative had been born deep within her soul and had crawled slowly out from the darkness that had once surrounded her like a shroud, into the brighter realm of possibility.

 

And, for the first time Jennifer also reflected what it might be like to not know the whereabouts of her own family. Though there was a part of her (for reasons made abundantly clear by the earlier confrontation with her mother) that felt an unkind longing for just such a predicament, the greater part recognized at once how much emptier her life would have been without them. For all their vast and various imperfections, for their numerous points of view with which she vehemently disagreed, for all their laziness and self-righteousness, their intrusions and meddlings, her family was – all of them – the most influential group of people in her young life and she was a better person for knowing them. Even when they pissed her off, even when they drove her crazy. And she wished Resa could understand and experience such a feeling just once.

 

Jennifer took another sip of her wine and wondered what Resa’s mother might be like after all these years, wondered how she would react to seeing her daughter again. Would she be able to notice the change? See the incredible transformation in Resa? Would she even care?

 

Oh, she would have to, Jennifer thought at once. She’s a mother and mothers always care in some way…don’t they?

 

Well, in her world they did. But hers was, at this point in her still young and sheltered life, a world inherently limited by its scope of knowledge. It was shockingly different from Resa’s, as she well knew. And hadn’t Resa herself pointed out before, on several occasions, the contrasts in their upbringings? Why, the other woman hadn’t even known the simple tradition of a birthday celebration, had never been given a birthday cake. What did that say of the woman who had raised her? What sort of creature was she?

 

Sensing Resa’s approach, she glanced up to find her dining companion weaving her way through the tight arrangement of tables and accidentally brushing the back of one attractive woman with short, frosted blonde hair. Resa gave her a brisk apology for the bump before moving on, unaware how the female diner’s eyes followed her retreating form all the way. Strangely, Jennifer experienced no wave of jealousy at the obvious display of interest but rather a surge of pride. That’s my girlfriend, she thought blissfully. Feel free to look all you want…I know how lucky I am.

 

Resa took her seat. Jennifer read the anxiousness in her companion’s expression at once, despite Resa’s attempts to pretend otherwise, and resolved to placate her.

 

“So, you’re an aunt?” she said with a smile.

 

Resa nodded. “Looks like it.”

 

“They’re beautiful.” She looked down at the computerized photograph once more, her eyes captured by the dark-haired girl with the delirious smile. “And Pearl looks like you must have looked at her age.”

 

Resa muttered, “Except happier,” under her breath.

 

Ouch. Those two words revealed a great deal.

 

Jennifer’s immediate instinct was to press the issue, but she forced herself to remain silent and for a few moments both women were lost in their respective ruminations. In the end, however, Jennifer was simply too curious not to ask the question that had sprung to mind the moment after she put down the letter:

 

“Are you going to see her?”

 

She didn’t need to elaborate on the ‘her’; Resa knew. But the dark-haired woman took her time to respond, her eyes cast downward, her brows pulled forward into a scowl. Finally she said, “I suppose,” with a half-hearted shrug and shoveled a bite of swordfish into her mouth.

 

Jennifer nodded, not surprised by the lack of enthusiasm. “Do you want to?” she persisted gently, not wanting to ruin the mood of their first dinner out together but unwilling to brush off an issue that was clearly this important.

 

“I shouldn’t…” Resa lifted her head to meet Jennifer’s watchful gaze. “…but I do.”

 

“I understand.”

 

Resa sighed harshly. “I don’t,” she said, perturbed with her own emotional response to the prospect. “I don’t know what I expect I’ll find. Hell, I’m probably the last person she wants to see, just a reminder of all the bad things that went on in her life.”

 

“Hardly,” Jennifer countered. “You’re beautiful and smart and strong. She’d be crazy not to be proud.”

 

“It’s possible she is. Crazy, I mean.”

 

“Because of the stroke?”

 

“No. Because she never acted especially sane. I can’t imagine that’s changed much.”

 

“I guess you’ll just have to see for yourself.”

 

Her eyes grew hooded. “I guess I will,” was all she said before she took another bite.

 

They were almost done with their meal, in all its deliciousness, when the notion first came to Jennifer. She glanced up at Resa, then back down again. Then, unable to contain herself, she looked back up right into Resa’s expectant eyes.

 

“What?” the former gang leader challenged.

 

Jennifer chewed her lower lip. “You know,” she began. “Culver City isn’t that far away. Especially at this time.”

 

Blue eyes narrowed. “I see those wheels turning in your mind.”

 

“Well, I’m curious. Aren’t you?”

 

Resa’s left brow arched slightly. “Uh-huh.”

 

“And, it’s only a fifteen minute drive from here. Twenty tops.”

 

The timber of her voice deepened. “Uh-huh.”

 

“Soooo, I was thinking we could, you know, drive by where she’s living, maybe, just to take a look.” She put forth her best hopeful look. “What do you think?”

 

“Uh-uh.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because it’s too soon.”

 

“It’s been fourteen years,” Jennifer reasoned.

 

“I’m not ready.”

 

“What are you waiting for?”

 

Resa set down her fork and fixed Jennifer with a hard stare.

 

“Look. I only just got the letter today. I just now found out where she lives. I can’t meet her now, after all this time.”

 

“We wouldn’t go in,” Jennifer said despite knowing it was probably a hopeless cause. “We’d just drive by, see what the place looks like. Form a mental picture so it won’t seem as foreign when you think about it later. That’s all.”

 

“No,” Resa said abruptly, shaking her head at the same time. “No.”

 

Jennifer could feel her friend shut down from across the table, practically saw the walls go storming up in defense, and she knew at once the reason; Resa was scared. Plain and simple. The woman warrior whose very name once instilled fear into the hearts of the ruthless and the cruel was, when it came right down to it, afraid to see her own mother. Which didn’t surprise Jennifer in the slightest. Resa was a woman of great courage and fortitude but even the brave had their vulnerabilities and Resa’s mother struck right at the heart of hers.

 

In college Jennifer had read about abused children, raised in homes far more inhuman than Resa’s, who would still express a longing for their parent’s love, this in spite of the atrocities they may have faced, the brutality and subjugation. It was a concept that Jennifer had found very difficult to grasp at the time, being as far removed from such an environment as she was. But she had learned a lot since college. And there was no denying that Resa had been reared in a horrible atmosphere that no child should ever have to endure. There was no romanticizing what Resa had been through, no skimming over the finer points of emotional abandonment and bone-crushing poverty. These were elements that shaped her partner into her present being and had to be acknowledged in their entirety or else the picture was skewed, lost. It wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility for Resa, on some level, perhaps too deep for her own recognition, to be reliving the same sense of defenselessness and anger that had once dominated her childhood…

 

“Do you disagree?” Resa asked, interrupting the trail of her thoughts.

 

Jennifer looked over her companion, her lover and friend and found herself melting inside. “Oh, no, baby.” She reached out to take Resa’s hand between her own. “Not at all. It’s your decision. You’ll know when you’re ready.”

 

Resa drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, the tension dissipating somewhat from her broad shoulders and easing around the corners of her mouth. She was quiet for several moments, her eyes fixed to her plate as if drawn and held there by a magnet. Jennifer felt her reluctance to speak warring with the desire to explain the vehemence of her resistance.

 

“I know I must sound like a coward,” she mumbled grimly.

 

“No. I absolutely don’t think that.” She gave Resa’s fingers a warm squeeze and was pleased when long fingers curled around her palm to return the pressure. She could see a slight tremor in the soft tissue beneath her blue eyes as Resa wrestled with her own emotions, clearly more powerful than she could have imagined. Jennifer gave a small, apologetic smile. “I didn’t mean to make you feel that way. I only wanted to present the option. I’m sorry.” She raised Resa’s hand to her lips and gave it a soft kiss by way of reassurance.

 

“It’s okay,” she said meeting Jennifer’s eyes briefly. “It’s not you. It’s…” Her scowl deepened as she struggled to articulate her emotions, which was never her strong suit. “Seeing Tarquin is one thing,” Resa said in a low voice, her gaze shifting off to the side as if she were trying to capture some long-lost memory. “I never despised him, never blamed him for what happened. It wasn’t his fault, what happened to Luis…or me. He was as much of a—“ She stopped short and a conscious recognition spread across her face. For a moment her mouth hung slightly agape as if some she were a marionette whose puppeteer had suddenly let go of the strings. “—a victim…” she continued at last in a voice quiet with what sounded close to awe. “…as I was.”

 

Jennifer noted the odd expression that crossed her face and tipped her head to one side. “Are you—“

 

“What time is it?” Resa interrupted abruptly, her manner suddenly hurried, as if she were being swept up by a powerful idea that was compelling her along in its wake.

 

Jennifer checked her watch. “Seven thirty.”

 

“How late do you think they allow people to visit?”

 

“Where?”

 

“At the retirement home.”

 

Jennifer shrugged. “I don’t know. Nine?”

 

Resa nodded her dark head, her eyes vacant as she lost herself in thought. “I was thinking either eight or nine. We could just make it…”

 

“Wait…” Jennifer said, holding up her hand as if to slow down Resa just long enough to allow herself to catch up. “Are you talking about tonight?”

 

“Yes.” Resa nodded again. “I do want to see her.” She shifted her jaw to one side in fixed determination that alighted in her eyes like a blue fire. “Tonight.”

 

Now, a thoroughly surprised Jennifer Logan didn’t quite know what to say to such an obvious and abrupt turn of events so rather than respond at all, she sat back in her chair and thought, Well, this could get interesting…

 

 

* * * *

 

When it came right down to it, there was a sameness to all assisted living facilities that transcended culture and the breadth of the economic spectrum — blending the poor, the rich, the Jew, the Gentile, those who had lived full lives with those who knew only deprivation — to create across the country, and even, to some extent, the world, a sort of homogeneous housing system where the only prerequisite for joining was to be old or enfeeble, or, more often than not, both.

 

But, if one was being honest, one would have to admit that the true unifying factor for all of these homes, the principal ingredient in the human amalgamation, was sadness. Sadness of the residents forced to live away from their immediate families and few remaining friends; sadness of the staff who were grossly underpaid and struggled daily to find a reason to watch those around them march forward to their inevitable destinations, a destination they were all-too-aware was soon to be their own; and sadness on the part of those who were forced to do the leaving. It didn’t matter the purity of the intent, the magnitude of how bad the children or the grandchildren or whichever unlucky family member drew the short end of the stick, may have felt about depositing their elderly relation into such a home or how often they endeavored to visit or the amount of gifts they managed to bring. There was always the same prevailing sense of sadness that floated almost tangible in the air, filling the vapor with an unspoken miasma of doom until many who visited were afraid to breathe lest they take such dissolution into their own relatively young, healthy bodies and find themselves unwitting residents before their time. There was no such thing as a happy nursing home, no matter what the pamphlets might try to say to the contrary, and the Royal Arms of Culver City, despite the majesty of its moniker, was no different from any other in this regard.

 

As Resa Gustavez found out.

 

It was almost eight thirty by the time Jennifer’s Lexus pulled up into the almost deserted and distinctly under-lighted parking lot of the care facility. By this point, Resa was seriously considering for the tenth time in five minutes whether she should tell her companion that this was a remarkably foolish idea after all. And she was drawing in a breath to do just that when Jennifer unexpectedly reached out across the expanse of the front seat to grip her hand, finding it with unfailing accuracy in the dark, and instantly suffusing Resa with the warmth of comfort, so much so that she forgot what it was she had intended to say.

 

“Do you want me to come with you?” her friend asked.

 

Resa nodded, then, unsure whether Jennifer could see her in the inky blackness of the car’s interior, murmured, “I would like that.”

 

They exited the car and headed toward the main building. Though darkness surrounded them, Resa could still distinguish enough from the outlines and silhouettes to recognize that this place was hardly unkempt. In fact, from what little she could glean – by the trimmed shape of the bushes, the tinkling sound of water as it spilled over from a nearby fountain, and the clean, white squares linked together to form a pathway to the front of the main building – it was quite lovely. So why, then, did she feel such a relentless sense of dread tugging at her chest?

 

She glanced up at a series of windows that lined the first and second floors, most of which were covered by curtains. A few, however, were not and Resa could not shake the impression of being somehow watched from at least one. She glanced again, straining to get a better look but failed to do so before she and Jennifer crossed through the automatic front doors that led into the building.

 

The nebulous sense of apprehension she felt upon entering was very quickly replaced by an almost primal urge to immediately turn and walk right back out again and one glance at Jennifer’s expression told her the younger woman was feeling something quite similar. But the green eyes that turned up to smile at her were filled with support and encouragement.

 

The lobby itself was thoroughly unexceptional, dominated by a front desk made of faux cherry wood with crisp, brass lettering that bore the name of the facility with dubious pride. Off to the right was a seating area consisting of two overly floral loveseats facing each other and a low coffee table covered by a couple National Geographic magazines that looked suspiciously as if they hadn’t been touched since they were first placed there.

 

A moment after their entered the reception area their attention was captured by a woman who hastened through the door behind the front desk. She had a long, dramatic nose that dominated her otherwise unremarkable face and wore a flowery smock of turquoise and mauve. Her manner projected one of perpetual bother, convincing Resa at once that she worked there. When the woman whose nametag read ‘Miss Carter’ caught her first glimpse of the two visitors, she frowned mightily, her two, thick brows pulling forward until they appeared as a ‘v.’

 

“Can I help you?” she asked, though her demeanor held enough annoyance that Resa recognized she would really rather not have to do any such thing. This only served to bolster Resa’s resolve.

 

“I believe my mother’s here,” Resa informed her in unusually measured tones. A beat passed as the woman just continued to stare at her, forcing Resa to add, “I’d like to see her.”

 

The woman’s mouth pursed, bringing forth dozens of little wrinkles to gather around her already thin lips and giving her a uniquely, and thoroughly unattractive visage.

 

“Visiting hours’ are over at 8:00,” she said curtly. “You can come back tomorrow.”

 

With that she turned away from them and began to search for some missing object in the hidden recesses of the front desk, confident, it would appear, that the unwanted guests would follow her instructions posthaste.

 

But Resa, who at the news felt a curious sense of relief mingle with her disappointment, was not one to give up when her objective was so close at hand. She glanced at a clearly annoyed Jennifer, then turned back to the dour and decidedly unhelpful Miss Carter.

 

“I haven’t seen her in a very long time,” she persisted, doing her level best to remain polite. “My brother said she was here and…and…” She stopped, frustrated at not being able to elucidate her feelings, even to herself, let alone to anyone else. Finally she said, “It’s important.” And that was enough.

 

The tense woman, however, did not appear to be moved. If anything the ‘v’ that hung like an arrow above her too-prominent nose seemed to deepen with her resolve. But as Miss Carter opened her mouth to most assuredly reject the heartfelt entreaty, an African American woman entered the lobby through the same doorway behind the desk.

 

Although the two resident ladies were similarly dressed, it was there that the resemblance between them ended for this second woman, with her round body and cheerful spirit, was the sort who drew people to her side rather than repelled them.

 

She smiled brightly at Resa and Jennifer. “Hello there,” she said, her voice warm. “How are you two ladies doing today?” Resa noticed her nametag read ‘Mrs. Hood.’

 

“Very well, thanks,” Jennifer responded, returning her smile in kind, as pleased as Resa to find someone nice with whom to speak.

 

“Good to hear it,” said the woman with a nod. She turned to focus her sparkle on the rigid Miss Carter by her side. “Evelyn, I’ll help these women out. You just get done what you need to. Don’t worry ‘bout a thing.”

 

The woman who only seconds earlier exuded all the charm of Miss Almira Gulch from The Wizard of Oz practically melted with relief. She didn’t bother to cast a spare glance in the newcomer’s direction before dashing off on her unknown mission, leaving Resa and Jennifer at Mrs. Hood’s disposal.

 

“Now, what can I help you with today?” Mrs. Hood asked.

 

Resa cleared her throat, experiencing anew the same apprehension that had plagued her moments earlier. But though a part of her wanted to write this whole experience off as an error in judgment and head back to Jennifer’s house, her resolve would not allow her to back down now. Not when she was this close.

 

“My name’s Resa Gustavez,” she said. “And I just found out today that my mother lives here.” Feeling Jennifer’s eyes on her, she squared her shoulders. “I know your visiting hours stopped at eight, but I’d like to see her. Tonight.” A beat. “Please.”

 

There, she thought after the words passed her lips. That wasn’t so hard.

 

Mrs. Hood moved around the front desk to stand before the two women. “You just found out today that your mamma was here?” she noted with interest.

 

Resa nodded. “Yes.” Then added, “We’ve been sort of…estranged.”

 

“Apparently.”

 

Resa fought the urge to shuffle her feet, chiding herself that the specifics of her separation from her mother were of no one’s concern but her own. And yet the feeling of discomfort persisted.

 

Reading her friend’s awkwardness, Jennifer took charge of the matter.

 

“Her name is Sophia Gustavez,” she said. “Do you know her?”

 

Mrs. Hood’s nodded. “Why, yes, I know her. Real well.”

 

Resa’s heartbeat accelerated with a lurch and her stomach plunged. Trepidation and uncertainty swarmed about her like bees and in that instant it all became crashingly real. Her mother. Her being there. The chance to see again, after years of being apart, the woman who had been a source of such great confusion in her turbulent life…

 

“Mrs. Gustavez has been with us for a couple years now,” Mrs. Hood continued, with Resa not bothering to correct her about her mother’s marital status. “A lovely lady.”

 

It took all of Resa’s restraint not to scoff at that last remark. Her mother had been many things in her hard and storied life but ‘lady’ had never been one of them.

 

Perhaps sensing Resa’s skepticism, Mrs. Hood asked, “When was the last time you saw your mother?”

 

“Thirteen or fourteen years ago.”

 

“I see.” She nodded her head thoughtfully, then fixed Resa with a piercing look that seemed as if she were reaching into her deeply buried, innermost thoughts. “Your brother is Tarquin?” Resa nodded. “And did your brother tell you much about your mother’s condition?”

 

“I know she had a stroke.”

 

“Yes, that’s true. But that’s saying a lot. You see, every person reacts differently to having a stroke. Some folks come out of it with almost no difference, others have a little limp or their speech is slurred or they can’t write their name quite like they used to. And then there are others who…well, they don’t come out of it at all.” Her eyes showed she was trying to be as kind as possible. “You’re mother is like that.”

 

Though she knew of her mother’s condition, a wave of pain washed over Resa. She clenched her jaw and wished she could deny the sorrow that flowered within the pit of her stomach at the information. But she couldn’t. Despite the misery she caused Resa, despite the hatred her daughter had harbored in her heart for more years than could be recalled, the verification of her mother’s condition was ultimately distressing to a profound degree. God, how Resa wished she didn’t care…

 

…yet, she did.

 

Resa drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “Is she coherent?”

 

Mrs. Hood considered the question a moment, mulling the best way to explain. “It’s not that she’s incoherent. She’s just not…present. That may be the best word.”

 

A cloud of dejection passed over her, darkening her spirit and leaving her to second-guess her decision to come to such a place on so improbable an undertaking. But then she felt a touch against her fingers and glanced down as Jennifer slipped her hand into her grasp. Resa raised her eyes to meet those of her companion and felt the weight of the other woman’s compassion pour into her, bringing her solace though no words passed between them. Just innate awareness. And, truly, that was enough.

 

Resa squeezed her fingers in return as raw emotion swelled in her chest.

 

“Would you still like to see her?” Mrs. Hood asked unexpectedly.

 

Resa glanced up in surprise. “Tonight?”

 

“Yes. She’s not yet retired to her room.” A kind smile hovered around Mrs. Hood’s dark brown eyes. “Mrs. Gustavez is usually the first one up and the last one to bed.”

 

Resa frowned. That didn’t sound at all like her mother. The Sophia Gustavez she knew had barely been awake during the daylight hours and when she was it was often passed in a drunken and/or otherwise stoned haze, leaving her children to care for her rather than the other way around. The notion of her being an early riser was almost laughable.

 

“I thought…” she started but caught herself. If this woman was kind enough to offer, then far be if from her to refuse. “Yes. I would like that.” Then she added, “Thank you.”

 

Mrs. Hood’s smile deepened, spreading the creases around the corners of her eyes outward like a Chinese fan.

“All right then. Sign in here at the register…” She indicated the sheets of paper attached to a clipboard that lay atop the front desk. “…and then follow me.”

Resa started forward, but stopped when Jennifer disengaged her hand from their clasp. Resa glanced back with a frown of confusion.

“You go,” the younger woman said softly. “I’ll wait for you here.”

Resa started to argue with her, but then realized the decision was likely for the best. Lord only knew what awaited her in next several minutes and though a great part of her desperately wanted the comfort of Jennifer’s presence, she recognized that this moment was one she had to face on her own.

She nodded, more for herself, then turned back to where Mrs. Hood waited for her in the doorway and together they proceeded forward.

The hallway beyond the lobby was slightly brighter, with the lights coming from florescent fixtures set into the white ceiling and the passageway wide enough to accommodate two wheelchairs side-by-side. A couple yards past the door, the hall split into two directions and Mrs. Hood led her to the left.

“Your mother likes to spend her time in the Front Gathering Room,” the older woman explained as they went, her manner one of friendly conversation. “That’s where many of our residents like to congregate when they don’t want to be in their rooms or in the entertainment hall. That’s where we keep the televisions and computers and such,” she clarified.

“Computers?”

“Oh, yes. A great many of the folks love to spend their time on the computers, usually skimming the internet or writing e-mails to their loved ones. It’s been an amazing tool for them. Really keeps them in touch with what’s going on. I’ve noticed a tremendous change in folks who use them. Quite remarkable. One day, I might even figure out how to work one of those things, but I usually just leave that to my daughter. That girl is a wiz.”

A couple moments later they reached an wide entrance off Resa’s left with both doors still left open and it was here that Mrs. Hood stopped.

“Here we are,” she said. “This is what we like to call the Front Gathering Room. Folks come here to play games or to socialize or to read if they’d like.” She extended her arm toward the room that awaited beyond. “Your mother is inside.”

Those four words sent a chill up Resa’s spine that left her briefly paralyzed and in that moment she became, if only for an instant, the child she had once been so long ago. Small, helpless, hopeless. A little girl afraid of her own mother. But then Resa shook her head once and straightened her shoulders as she seized her courage and pulled it around her like a coat of armor. Then, without a glance back, she stepped within.

The room was institutional size. The ceiling hung too low and the three sofas, each of a different and wildly discordant pattern, were all but worn down to tatters. As she entered, she noticed someone has set up a Christmas tree off to her right, a small though stout evergreen, with branches weighed down by decorations, the majority of which were hand-made. Resa could imagine they were the result of some sort of arts and crafts class in which the residents participated, searching, always, for a way to pass the time. And right beside the tree, as if to stake its equal claim on this holiday season, was a Jewish menorah, candles waiting patiently to be burned over the next eight successive days.

At first glance, Resa was confused. There seemed to be no one present and she thought a mistake had been made…until she noted a shape across the room and grew still.

The figure was the only other occupant but she was still difficult to see. She sat off in the far, darkened corner, a silhouette of a woman lingering among the shadows, existing as if she had learned over the years to become one with them. She did not move. There, in the corner, seated by an unadorned window in such a way Resa instinctively knew was how she spent all her time, gazing at everything and nothing as the minutes of her day, her life, slipped past unnoticed and unmissed.

She had a sparrow’s way about her, small and brown and easily overlooked. She was the sort of person who, if the place had caught fire, no one would remember to come find her, not out of dislike but rather out of disregard. Resa could picture the personnel of the Royal Court, even the kindly Mrs. Hood, standing around after the flames of their building had been doused and asking each other who they were missing, who was the one that was absent from the count. Oh, that’s right, they would say. The Sparrow. Do you think she’s still there, by the window?

And yet this woman was supposed to be her mother, the demon from her youth. It seemed impossible; such a creature was too insignificant to have caused so much heartache to so many, to her. Resa was tempted to go back to Mrs. Hood to tell her there had been a mistake. This was not her mother. She couldn’t be. But then she caught something familiar in the tilt of the other woman’s head, the way her chin angled slightly down and away, and she paused, straining to look closer…until she knew, on a deep, primitive level that both compelled and repulsed her, that there had been no error; this was indeed her Mamma.

Resa covered her mouth for a moment, lest she made a noise, but even then she realized that the woman would not move even if she shouted from the top of her lungs. She was utterly still, like a statue, waiting only for the pigeons to come perch on her shoulders.

Resa crossed the distance that separated them, her pace sluggish with dread, and with each step she struggled to recall the woman her mother had once been. It took great effort, so deeply buried were the memories, locked away, hidden and deliberately forgotten. She had never dreamed she would revisit them, would ever need to pull them back up. But now that she did, she found they reappeared with startling clarity, like a forgotten newspaper clipping tucked away in the back of a photo album, unsullied by constant handling and so well preserved it looked almost new.

She saw then, in the pristine pictures of her mind, a phantom creature called simply ‘Mamma,’ a figure, though arguably more alive than the one before her now, who was no less impenetrable and remote, a woman at a distance from everything in the world, including her children and especially herself. She was a presence, a body, an extra chair at the table and it was completely of her own choosing.

Sophia Gustavez had once been stunningly beautiful, and if one chose to look, as Resa did now, vestiges of her beauty could be detected still; in the contours of her face, the slope of her cheeks and chin; the arch of her brow over heavy-lidded eyes; the grace of her neck as it splayed down into shoulders so thin as to be in constant need of a sweater, even in the summer months. But indications were all that were left; no effort had been made to maintain her beauty and what lingered was merely residue, traces of loveliness to let you know what had once been but was now no more.

“Hello, Mamma,” Resa said and though her voice was soft and hushed, it seemed to echo loudly in her own ears.

Her mother did not move; she had not expected her to. If Resa were to reach over to prick this woman with a needle, she suspected that even then no reaction would be had. It was as if she had withdrawn so completely into herself as to be disassociated from her own skin.

As she stood before her, Resa’s eyes fell to the thick window ledge where her mother’s right hand, so bony and thin, rested upon faded green, leather bible, the imprint of the ‘l’ and ‘e’ having been worn off over the years. Her left hand lay demurely in her skirt-covered lap, hidden among the folds of dark cloth, clutching a square of white Kleenex as if it were some sort of amulet to help ward off evil spirits.

Resa sat down uninvited on the window bench across from her mother, the cushion giving out a little sigh beneath her weight. And if Sophia Gustavez was even aware her daughter was there, she did not let on, did not even twitch. Resa was near enough to be able to smell her, should have been able to feel the other woman’s presence, but nothing registered, nothing came back. She might very well have been seated opposite a phantom, the illusion of a person and nothing more.

“It’s me,” she continued, maintaining the hush to her tone. “Resa.”

But the words swept through the older woman and seemed to carry on past her, to echo into the empty room beyond. They did not touch Sophia, left no trace upon her being, ever still and ever vacant, as they vanished into the surrounding darkness as if they had never been spoken at all.

Resa shivered. Her mind went blank. For the life of her she could not recall the reason behind her wanting to come to this place, just what it was she had only a half hour earlier needed so desperately to tell the woman before her. Instead a vertiginous sense of confusion began to overwhelm her, pounding into her like pusillanimous waves against the defenseless shoreline and before she knew what she was doing she was already halfway across the room. Her mind was too much a jumble for rationality as she quickly retraced the steps that brought her back to the lobby in a handful of seconds.

Jennifer was seated across the room on one of the sofas in the waiting area and rose at once when Resa emerged from the doorway.

“What is it?” Jennifer asked in concern as she moved to intercept her obviously distraught friend.

“I can not do this,” Resa said, running her hand through her hair several times with a tense frustration and pacing in tight circles. “She’s– she’s not responding.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s just sitting there! It’s like…I’m not even there. Nothing registers.”

“But you knew that already. Both Tarquin and Mrs. Hood–“

“I know, I know what they said. But–it’s–seeing her is–“ She bit off her words, her jaw working overtime as she clenched and re-clenched her teeth. “I can’t do this.”

“Can’t do what, Resa? What did you come here for in the first place?” Jennifer reached out to lay a calming hand on Resa’s shoulder and the darker woman stopped her agitated movements at once to gaze down at her. “Tell me.”

Resa swallowed hard, the words coming to her with great difficulty, the underlying meaning still hazy even for her. “I–I…” She broke off, and bit the inside of her lower lip in an effort to get better hold of her feelings. She could feel a pressure building within her.

“What?” Jennifer prompted with sensitivity, putting her arm around the taller woman’s waist.

After a slight hesitation, Resa wet her lips and whispered, “I want her to see me.” Her voice was almost tremulous but she continued, for the first time giving words to what she felt inside. “To really see me. As I am now. Not how…” She ducked her head.

“How you used to be.”

Resa nodded and a fresh surge of shame at her past misdeeds cut through her with a sharpness born of self-awareness.

Then a small, strong hand cupped the side of her face and she heard the gentle tones of encouragement.

“Honey, listen to me.” Resa raised her head to meet a pair of patient green eyes. “Just talk to her.”

“And say what?”

“What you came here to say. And if she doesn’t hear you or doesn’t respond, that’s okay. As long as you speak what’s in your heart, that’s all that matters.”

“Speak what’s in my heart…” Resa repeated dubiously.

Jennifer nodded. “Yes.” Her smile was serenely confident.

“She probably won’t hear me.”

“But, it’s not really for her. Is it?”

Resa thought about that for a long moment, then shook her head.

“I didn’t think so,” Jennifer said knowingly.

A small smile flirted at the corners of Resa’s eyes. “When did you get so smart?” she murmured, relieved to be back on familiar teasing ground, if only briefly.

“Oh, I’ve always been smart. You’re just now catching on.” Jennifer winked and the tension within Resa began to dissipate. “Now,” her younger friend continued. “I’m going to wait out in the car. Come to me when you’re done.”

“Okay,” she said as she recovered her composure.

“I love you,” Jennifer said quietly and Resa greatly appreciative of the affirmation.

Moments later, the doors slid closed behind Jennifer’s bantam frame and Resa stood alone in the lobby.

Speak what’s in your heart… She rubbed a dry hand over weary eyes and let out a deeply felt sigh. Okay. I can do this. And if she doesn’t respond…at least I said it. That’s what counts.

Her mother was, of course, exactly where she left her. Staring out into the inky void that overlooked the front of the building, seeing God only knew what. If anything. For a trice she stood in the doorway and marveled at the imbroglio of her own emotions. In the silence Resa could hear her own breathing, slightly ragged, and the rhythm of her own pulse as it thundered in her own ears.

What am I afraid of? she wondered to herself. After all I’ve been through, all I’ve survived, why does this scare me so much?

The answer was not forthcoming. At least, not yet.

Resa again crossed the room, her steps more deliberate though no less wary, until she stood beside the seated figure and stared down at her. It was then she noticed for the first time that her mother wore her hair cut short.

Lamps from outside cast enough light across the older woman to bring the silver streaks in fine relief against her otherwise ebony hair. It was yet another discrepancy from her recollection of her mother. Sophia Gustavez had always worn her hair long, had taken indecorous pride in the of what she considered to be her greatest asset, often spending a foolish amount of the family’s limited income on expensive products that pampered her glorious mane. It was her most defining attribute. And now it was gone.

Resa wondered what had brought about the change, if it had been her mother’s decision or if it had been made by others who hadn’t the time or patience to maintain something so impractical as a grand tumble of hair on a woman barely able to care for herself. Strangely, Resa found she missed it.

She sat down again, in the same place as before, and stared at her mother’s quiescent face for what felt like hours but was in fact closer to a minute.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked, keeping her tone low. “Do you have any idea why I came here?”

Glassy eyes blinked but there was no hidden meaning behind the gesture. Merely involuntary body movement.
“I came to see you for a reason,” Resa continued and with each word that she managed to speak, her fear began to recede, allowing a curious mettle to creep forward to take its place. “I came to tell you…that I have hated you my whole life,” she said, her voice slightly louder and very hard. “I have cursed and despised you for longer than I can remember. You made my life an absolute hell. And I have no idea why. You were my mother. You should have loved me. At the very least, you should have taken care of me. Of all of us. Tarquin and Luis, too. But you didn’t, did you?”

Silence. Eerie and absolute. Dark eyes blinking. And nothing else.

Resa pressed on, lost to anything but the words that poured out of her.

“Do you know what happened to me after I left you? When I went to live with Alfons? Do you know what I became?” She didn’t wait for a reply. “A murderer. A drug dealer. A thief and a terrorist. I became every sort of evil that you can imagine and for the longest time, I couldn’t bring myself to care. For years, Mamma, I didn’t give a damn about human life because it didn’t mean anything to me. I’d been shown too often that life held no meaning. Despite what Grand Ma and Poppy may have tried to teach me, all I had to do was look to you to know the real story. You were my mother, you were supposed to care about me. But you didn’t. And that’s what I kept with me. That there was no such thing as love. Only self-interest. Greed. And I became a very greedy person, Mamma. Very. For years I grabbed as much as I could lay my hands on because I knew at any moment it could be taken away from me. And then one day it was. All of it. Gone. But, the funny thing was, Mamma, when it finally happened, when I went to jail for my part in killing a small boy…I found I didn’t care anymore. Hell, I didn’t care about anything, especially myself. I went from being the greediest mutherfucker conceivable to absolute emptiness. When I got out of prison, I didn’t give a shit about what happened to me in my life, where I ended up, what I did for a living because by then I had already given up on myself. I said all the right things to the people around me, the people who were trying to help me, and I’d learned enough to know that I didn’t ever want to go back to jail. Ever. I’d do anything to avoid that. So I helped out with the priest who tried his best to save me and I struggled to feel. Every single day. I tried and tried and tried to feel. I wanted it so bad…but it never happened.

“Until one day…” Her voice softened for the first time and her eyes drifted away from her mother’s face as she lost herself to a memory so sweet she felt tears threaten. “…when I met someone. Someone who believed in me for me. Someone who could look into my eyes and see goodness and hope… Someone who could love me.” She swallowed against the swell of emotion that pressed against her chest. “I never thought that would happen. Not to me. But it did. Someone actually loves me. And I love her.” She shook her head in wonder. “More than I ever thought possible.” A smile spread across her face lighting her up from the inside out. “Her name’s Jennifer Logan. She’s a writer and she’s incredible. We met by chance a year and a half ago and as hard as I tried to get rid of her, for her own good, she wouldn’t leave. She still won’t and if I’m lucky, she never will.

“She’s been very good for me, you know. She’s taught me all sorts of things in our time together but most of all she’s taught me to accept myself for who I am. That it’s okay to forgive myself, that I don’t have to live a life in seclusion or to die to be absolved of my sins. I can be forgiven right here and now, if I truly mean it. If I let myself. That was a hard one for me but I think I’m starting to get it now. I hope…”

Her words trailed off briefly, then she regained her focus and looked up into her mother’s face. “You know what else I realized today, Mamma? For my whole life I have let myself be your victim. Even when I didn’t know I was doing it, when I just thought I was just hating you for being such a lousy mother. But it was a lot more than that. I was blaming you and hating your.” Subconsciously she straightened and raised her jaw. “But that stops today. I am my own person now. I have the opportunity to become more than I ever thought possible for myself and you know what, Mamma? I’m gonna take it. With both hands. And then I’m never gonna look back. Never.”

The word echoed in cavernous room, ringing off the walls and rebounding back upon them with even greater impact.

“I know you can’t hear me,” Resa said, lowering her voice. “Or you don’t know what I’m saying. But Jennifer was right. I needed to say this more for myself than anything else. It won’t change anything. It won’t bring back my childhood or make you have loved me or Tarquin or Luis, but at least I’ll know I said it. I was your child. You should have cared about me…but you didn’t. And you know what, Mamma?” Her voice cracked a bit. “I forgive you for it.” She swallowed, then continued. “You had a bad life. Most of it was of your making. But a lot of it came down on you from the outside and though I wish you would have found a better way of handling it than you did, I don’t blame you for it anymore. I have too much to look forward to in my own life now. I have a life to look forward to. And that’s all that matters. My future, for myself, with Jennifer. That’s all that really will ever matter, because she’s my family now. And I’m hers. I can’t help the family I was born into but I’m responsible for the family I choose to make my own and from where I’m standing, I’ve chosen the best.” Her voice lowered a notch as she repeated, “The very best.”

She let the last three words fade away and lost herself to reflection. Her heart beat wildly, as if she had just run the hundred-yard dash, but deep within she knew she was satisfied. She had expelled the poison she hadn’t even been aware she carried inside and the seeds of integrity began to germinate. Suddenly, she found she no longer wanted to be there, in that room, talking her peace. Instead she was eager to leave, to be done with all this and take up the waiting reigns of her own life.

And it was then that a movement caught her eye.

She instinctively turned her head toward the motion then froze as the blood plunge away from her cheeks, only to return in full force an instant later.

Her mother’s right hand, the one that had been resting on the window’s ledge, reached inside the front cover of the well-worn leather bound bible and slowly extracted a white square of paper from within.

Resa glanced quickly to her mother’s face to find the dark eyes now slightly downcast but she was otherwise impassive and unchanged.

She returned her attention to the slip of paper as her mother placed it on the window’s ledge and slid it in Resa’s direction. She clearly intended for her daughter to take it.

Resa picked up the paper with nervous fingers and only then realized it was a photograph. She turned it over and a sob choked in her throat at what she saw.

She remembered this picture. Instantly. How could she ever forget? It had been the Christmas before Luis died, when they had gathered together for one of the few, if only, photographs of all three Gustavez children that had ever been taken.

Four days before that Christmas, Resa had managed to scrounge up an evergreen tree from some vacant lot behind an abandoned apartment building and had dragged it fifteen blocks to where they lived. In spite of her mother’s protests that the pine needles were going to get everywhere — which they did– she and Luis had placed it next to the front window of their apartment. Tarquin had mocked her shamefully when he came home from the Junior College and saw her pitiable, Charlie Brown tree. But she hadn’t cared. She’d told him to turn around and leave if he didn’t have anything nice to say and then went back to decorating the branches with every conceivable ornament she could find. Popcorn on a thread. Cutouts from magazines. A raggedy string of lights that had the misfortune to blink, thus irritating her mother to no end and relegating the amount of time they could be on to about half an hour before Mamma complained about how they gave her a migraine. And no angel at the top because the tree branch wasn’t strong enough to hold one.

It had been, when all was said and done, the most pathetic excuse for a Christmas tree that one could imagine and at the time Resa was more than a little embarrassed by it. But she was also too stubborn to look for a replacement, not with Tarquin making fun of her over it and certainly not when she saw how much love Luis had put into its creation. No, then she could never take it back for Luis’ happiness was, in so many ways, her responsibility and she did not treat that charge lightly.

So instead she had insisted they take a picture of the tree for posterity, somehow convincing a neighbor to loan them their camera and film and then managed to talk that same neighbor — whose name escaped her but whom she recalled smelled of cigars and Old Spice aftershave — into taking the snapshot of all three siblings standing before the blinking monument to her own obstinacy.

When they got the photo back from the neighbor, Resa remembered her sense of disappointment upon viewing it for the first time. The picture wasn’t at all how she had imagined it would be. Instead of the Rockwellian testament to familial cohesion, the image captured revealed Tarquin looking bored and petulant, Resa smiling with far too much enthusiasm to ever appear genuine and Luis with his eyes half-closed, making him appear vaguely drunk. It was the sort of photograph any other family would have discarded, having dozens of others to frame and admire. Only, the Gustavez’s had no such luxury. There was only this one. But in the years since then, when she allowed herself the indulgence of a fond memory of her childhood, it was on that moment that she looked back with the most affection. Because it was the three of them together. For one of the last times.

She had thought it lost, had long since given up any hope of being able to see the picture again and resigned herself to rely on her own memory for any means of recollection. Yet, here it now was, in the possession of the one person who she would never have assumed to even want such a sentimental item, had never given any indication she would desire a memento of the family that, by all accounts, had been as much a disappointment as a burden.

Fighting back on her emotions, Resa glanced up from the photograph…

…and straight into her mother’s piercing dark eyes. Eyes that were now staring directly at her. No longer unfocussed. No longer unclear. No longer devoid.

Her heart stopped. Sweat broke out at the back of her neck and along her brow. She couldn’t possibly breathe. She’d forgotten how.

In that one, fleeting moment, she saw something she had never before seen in the entire course of her life – she saw her mother. As real, as connected, as human as she had ever been and would ever again prove to be. Boring deep into Resa’s immortal soul and touching her on the one level that only she, Sophia Gustavez, could possibly touch. She saw her. Knew her. Forgave her. And, in turn, accepted her mother’s forgiveness.

It all happened in what amounted to a handful of seconds, moments that would never be repeated again. Then Mrs. Hood called kindly from the doorway,

“Mrs. Gustavez…”.

And the moment, as fragile as filament, was broken. Dark eyes dimmed and her lids grew heavy once more.

“It’s time to go to bed, Mrs. Gustavez.”

Taking up her bible, Sophia placed her bony right hand on the arm of her chair and raised herself on unsteady legs. Resa instinctively reached out to help her mother, her fingers wrapping around the older woman’s achingly thin elbow and providing support until she secured her balanced. For a fraction of a second they stood side by side and Resa experienced a sense of suffocating poignancy the likes of which she had never before known as she gazed down upon the woman whose frailty and sorrow managed to slip past a lifetime’s worth of defenses to break her heart.

“Mamma,” she whispered, but her voice caught and she found she didn’t know what else to say. Not that it mattered. Sophia Gustavez was back in her shell, on her way, no longer accessible.

It was then that Resa remembered the photograph, still held with great care in her left hand. She had but an instant to make her decision and with lightning speed she took two full strides forward and slipped the photograph into the right pocket of Sophia’s plumb colored cardigan sweater. Then she stepped aside and watched with a transcendent longing as her mother crossed the room. With an abstract eye she noted her mother’s agonizingly slow gait and her precarious carriage, tilting somewhat to the left, as if at any moment she would topple at the slightest provocation, though she never did. Her shoes scraped across the linoleum, echoing with every shuffled step she made and when she reached the doorway, she passed through without hesitation, out of sight, never raising her head as she went, never looking back at all. And Resa wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if the woman had actually vanished the moment the door closed behind her, evaporated into the ether like a ghost.

Mrs. Hood smiled in Resa’s direction and said, “I hope you got what you came for.” Then she too passed through the doorway and was gone, swallowed up by the same vacuity.

For several minutes after, Resa sat alone, absorbing the stillness and hush that surrounded her from without. But within… Within her heart there began an inescapable trembling that she could not possibly subdue. It was as if someone had placed a drop of radiating fear into the center of her being and she could feel the effects as they suffused throughout the whole of her body, leaving her shaken.

She became vaguely aware of tears brimming in her eyes, then tumbling out, but she could not actually feel them even as they slid down her face and neck and eventually her chest, where they were absorbed by the material of her dress. She began to tremble. At first it was only tiny shakes, the kind that typically accompany the first chill of the approaching winter evening. But they grew more pronounced. She squeezed her hands into fists and stepped forward on legs both unmistakably strong and uniquely determined. And with each step she grew more resolute, until the next thing she knew she was passing the familiar front desk and exiting through the automatic doors to find herself surrounded, once again, by the inky obscurity of night.

Resa stopped on the edge of the parking lot, closing her eyes made blind by the quick change from brightness to dark. Her throat worked uncontrollably as panic rose like bile. A moment later she heard the sound of a car door opening. She quickly glanced to her left and saw a light twinkle briefly as Jennifer climbed out of her Lexus, shutting the door behind her as she came forward. But now Resa had a fix on her and it was in that direction she headed, slowly at first, then cleaving through the night with mounting desperation.

“Resa,” Jennifer said as she came around the front of the car, concern resonating in the lilt of her tone and it was at that moment Resa began to cry. Great, billowing sobs that shook her shoulders and rattled her soul. And when Jennifer’s figure rose up from the shadows to greet her, she fell upon the smaller woman as if in the grips of an almost disconsolate grief.

Jennifer’s strong arms came around her at once, wrapping her tight in their embrace even as she staggered back a bit under the unexpected weight, falling against the Lexus’ passenger door. Some part of Resa’s awareness told her she was too heavy for the other woman, that she should pull away, yet she only succeeded in tugging Jennifer closer, holding her tighter as she drowned in uncontrollable tears. She wept and wept with a pathetic lack of restraint and dignity, to the point where she struggled to breathe and was oblivious to her whereabouts.

Jennifer held her throughout. She stroked Resa’s back and cooed softly, “It’s all right…it’s all right…I’ve got you…I’ve got you…” as her friend surrendered the anguish she had retained within herself for longer than she could possibly have realized.

Minutes spun away into the night. But gradually, as every ounce of sorrow and suffering spilled from her and trickled to the wayside, Resa’s sobs subsided…slowly…slowly, until she was left completely empty and as weak as a newborn foal. She rested her forehead on Jennifer’s shoulder, turning her face into the other woman’s neck. Strong hands continued to play against Resa’s back, touching her, ameliorating her with every stroke.

“I’ve got you,” she heard Jennifer say, feeling the warmth of the younger woman’s breath tingle against her ear and in that instant it was as if a spark had been struck in the core of her being. A desire different from any other spread within her, throughout her, until it was the only thing she knew, the singular truth that she recognized. She did not question it, did not attempt to decipher its underlying meaning but rather gave herself over to its authority without reservation.

Resa cupped the back of Jennifer’s head and found her companion’s mouth with her own, kissing her with a fierceness that, on some level, startled them both. But she could not stop, did not know quite how to battle back on the hunger that governed her and was uncertain if she even wanted to. She took sustenance from their embrace, drew strength from their bond and found as the kiss continued that the hollowness that had opened up only moments earlier was at long last receding.

Then Jennifer gave a little moan of pleasure and Resa was inexorably lost.

She pressed the smaller woman hard against the side of the car, her impatient fingers tugging the silken blouse free and her hand sliding up the solid, flat stomach, over the dips and turns of ribs made more pronounced by the ragged edge to her breathing until she felt the weight of Jennifer’s breast against her palm. She was dimly aware of the inappropriateness of their present setting, though undoubtedly the nighttime disguised the specifics of their actions. But even still, she knew she required more concealment than this.

Resa snaked her arm around Jennifer’s hips and pulled the smaller woman up, feeling Jennifer’s legs as they wrapped around her waist, holding her tight as their kiss remained unbroken. Seconds later Resa had the car’s door open and both women fell onto the backseat in a hopeless mesh of mutual desire. Jennifer undulated beneath her and in mere seconds their clothes were tossed aside without hesitation. They made love then and there with a dizzying abandon and Resa experienced an urgency of need that pushed past the borders of reckless.

Her eyes never left her companion’s face and she discovered she could not touch her enough. In all her years, she had never felt like this, had never been held so utterly captive by forces seemingly outside her control. Raw need. It was primitive and all consuming and she was helpless in its grasp. But where would she be without it? Without Jennifer? Without her love and understanding?

Lost, she thought. I would be so very, very lost…

And later, as their breathing slowed and their bodies curved together in a crazy, sweaty tangle, there came, in the back of Resa’s mind, the traces of a vaguely familiar melody, playing over and over and over, until she found herself humming it softly, trying to place it. Then, as if a voice outside herself was whispering in her ear, she heard the words and recognized the tune. She almost smiled, understanding why the song chose this moment to appear to her, and closed her eyes, rubbing her cheek against the top of Jennifer’s head as she half murmured, half sang,

“’I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form… Come in, she said, I’ll give ya shelter from the storm…’”

* * * *

They arrived home sometime after ten. In the interim since leaving the facility, a calm silence of understanding and connection arose between them that lasted the entire drive home.

When they entered the house, both immediately headed upstairs where Jennifer prepared for sleep while Resa ventured out onto the second story balcony off the bedroom and gazed over the city that spread before her like an ocean of light.

The wind touched her skin. Resa closed her eyes against the feel of it, enjoying the momentary state of relaxation, though her body still vibrated from the intensity of her visit to her mother…as it probably would for a good while to come.

She was aware enough to recognize that she would need a great deal of time to allow for perspective before she could begin to comprehend the full implication of what had transpired. But, still, a part of her marveled at the awesome nature of the entire experience, and the healing she felt inside, a healing born from forgiveness.

She hadn’t known how much she needed to find her mother again, to gaze upon her and ultimately forgive her, until the moment the words passed her lips. She instinctively recognized their righteousness and felt, as soon as she gave them voice, the first full effect of their power. It was beyond anything she could have imagined, this need to forgive in order to be forgiven. In hindsight, it seemed obvious, but it had never before entered her mind that the person she most needed in life to confront was her mother. Sophia Gustavez. Demon of her childhood, source of so much pain in her youth and well beyond. Yet, now she understood that was the case, knew it from the inside where the tingles and vibrations continued to radiate throughout the entirety of her body and soul, restoring the parts of her that were wounded and ignored for too long. Bringing to her a much needed sense of closure…and of new beginning.

Resa inhaled deeply and let out a long sigh, releasing into the night all the tension she had held within for as long as she could recall, likely even longer than that, releasing it from the prison of her inner self and finding, upon its liberation, that she did not miss it in the slightest.

And it was like this that Jennifer found her, standing with her stubborn chin thrust into the breeze and her long hair lifted away from her face as if she were an angel about to take flight over the hillside.

For a minute Jennifer Logan remained quiet, watching Resa and marveling at her presence. It had been a long day, a full day, the sort that made one feel as if it had somehow been stretched well beyond its allotted twenty-four hours, that perhaps an extra week had somehow been slipped in when no one was looking. But despite the exhaustion she felt at that moment, she knew beyond a doubt that it had all been worth it. Just to see Resa standing with her head tipped back, allowing herself to be open to the whole world and so utterly different from the closed, distrustful creature she had once been…

A tiny shudder went through her, reminding her of how easily things could have turned out different, how many obstacles they had had to surmount to get them where they were today. It was a miracle really. An absolute miracle.

Jennifer inclined her head to one side and caught the fleeting, distinct scent of Resa that still clung to her own skin, left over from their earlier encounter in the car. A warmth swept over her as she thought back to the almost frenzied passion with which they had made love, as if it had been near desperation on Resa’s part and though Jennifer had at first wanted to determine what was going on with her companion, she chose instead to abstain from questioning in order to give to Resa what she so clearly needed. As they laid together afterwards, their sweat-drenched bodies joined in the mutually awkward position afforded them by the Lexus’ back seat, she pressed her ear to her companion’s chest and listened as her heartbeat gradually slowed its tempo. And when it was once again at peace, she knew then that was what the woman truly needed. Peace. And she had found it. They had found it. Together.

“You look beautiful standing there,” Jennifer said softly.

A smile inched along Resa’s lips, pulling at the corner of her mouth and leaving her to appear even more content. She turned to fully face Jennifer, opened her eyes and held out her arms by way of invitation. The younger woman accepted immediately and reveled in the feel of being held by her lover. Perhaps someday she would take such an embrace for granted, years from now when they had at long last developed the actual history to match the feelings they each already carried within, perhaps then she would come to expect no less a display of affection from her chosen companion. But for now it was still fresh and she cherished such a demonstration for the treasure it was.

“Besotted,” she said into Resa’s shoulder, her voice slightly muffled by the soft fabric of the black dress.

Resa frowned in confusion. “What?” she asked, certain she hadn’t heard quite right.

“Be-sot-ted,” Jennifer repeated, exaggerating the syllables in such a way as to make Resa smile. “I always thought it was a very silly word. The kind only British people used in movies based on something one of the Bronte sisters wrote.” She leaned back a bit until she could read Resa’s dubiously amused expression. “But as I was looking at you just now, I realized that’s what I am. I am besotted. With you.” Resa’s indulgent grin, deepened and her eyes twinkled. “And I think I always have been. Right from the beginning.”

“Besotted, huh?”

“Yep.” She nodded her head with enthusiasm.

Resa chuckled and pulled her tighter against her, plopping a short, firm kiss on the top of her head. They stood for several moments in silence before Jennifer mumbled,

“So…” letting her words drift off as if Resa could read her mind and know what next to say.

But Resa, not quite at the stage in their relationship where she knew precisely what her partner was thinking without necessarily having to be said, frowned again. “Are you being deliberately random?” she murmured.

“Nope. “ A sweet smile spread across Jennifer’s face. “Just naturally so.”

“Ahhh.”

“So…do you remember when we first met?”

“Of course.” Resa grew ironic. “I did get shot, after all.”

“No, no.” Jennifer shook her head and shifted back a little more until Resa’s arms held her loosely. “I mean the first moment. Before things went all Quentin Tarintino. Do you remember it?”

“Yes.” The single word was low and resonated with emotion.

“What were you thinking? When you first saw me. Did you have a first impression? Did you like me or did you think I was a total brat?” Resa rolled her eyes and Jennifer cocked her head to one side. “Seriously, I’m kinda curious. What did you think?”

She felt Resa’s breath as she let out a sigh that ruffled her hair. “It’s hard to explain.”

“Why?”

“Well, I didn’t exactly have a conscious thought. More of a…” Dark brows furrowed in concentration. “…a gut reaction.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I remember watching Manny leave the bar and knowing that he wasn’t about to let things go without more of a fight, not with the way he felt about me. Then I spoke to Palo, thanked him. And that’s when I looked over at you…and I felt…” Her voice trailed off as she recalled the specific sensation that had taken over her at that moment.

“What?” Jennifer prompted, eager to know more, wanting to re-experience what was, for her at least, such a seminal event.

Resa was quiet for a long time as she struggled to put into words something she barely understood. “It’s hard to explain. But, for a split second, when I looked at you…I had this—this feeling like some giant invisible hand reached out and grabbed hold of me and I was sort of…well, caught.” She chuckled and rested her cheek against the warmth of Jennifer’s temple. “I should have turned and ran right then, when I had the chance.”

“No way,” Jennifer laughed. “I’d have just found you somehow. Face it, we were meant to be together. T’was the Fates conspiring.”

“Oh, really?”

“Sure. Look at all the things that happened so we could meet each other. I mean, we’re as different as different can be, come from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, have different life experiences and, yet, here we are. When you think about it, we’re like little puzzle pieces that have these weird shapes and bumps and don’t seem to work anywhere in the big picture yet, when placed side by side, end up fitting together perfectly.” She stopped a moment, enjoying the sound of the word. “We just fit,” she repeated, earning a wry look from her companion.

“You’re not gonna quote Jerry Maguire are you?”

Jennifer immediately began to sign exaggeratedly as she mocked, “You.” She pointed to Resa. “Complete.” She clasped hands together. “Me.” She slapped her chest then grimaced in pain at the accompanying thump and they both cracked up.

“That is not sign language,” Resa said through her laughter.

“It’s Pig Sign Language,” she said with a wink. “A little unorthodox, but fun.”

“Pig Sign Language? Does that mean every word ends in an ‘A’?”

“Actually, the ‘A’ comes in a variety of places, which gives each sentence a bad Italian feeling. Like–“

“Mamma Mia, that’sa spica meataball?”

“Exactly! See? See how we fit? You complete me. Or at least my sentences. Plus, you’re very tall and can reach all the upper shelves in the pantry without a stepladder, which is very important to those of us who were picked last in basketball. Honestly, what more could I want in a partner?”

“So, that’s all I am to you? An excuse not to buy a stepladder?”

“Partly. There’s also the unbridled sex.”

“Interesting,” she said with a nod. “Of course, we could always try it with the bridle if you’d like.”

“Yes. Yes, we could,” Jennifer nodded as well, enjoying the banter. “But let’s work up to that. After all, it’s good to have goals.”

Resa let out a mock sigh. “If you insist,” she said as she took hold of Jennifer’s hand and led her to the lounge chair in which they had sat earlier that morning.

“I do,” Jennifer tweaked, lowering herself beside the dark-haired woman’s much larger frame and delighting in the perfect way in which their bodies came together as they laid down beneath the canopy of the clear nighttime sky.

Resa dipped her head into the crook of Jennifer’s neck, inhaling the warm, distinctive scent that surrounded the younger woman and left her senses feeling just a little drunk. She closed her eyes and drew Jennifer close to her body once more, still somewhat amazed at how desperately she yearned for the comfort of contact between them. It was a strange notion, this absolute hunger for the touch of another, but undeniable and well beyond her control. What she had been like in her past no longer seemed to matter; there was only now and the future that awaited them. Indeed, the violent wild-child afraid to let anyone near her was already a faded memory, replaced by the woman coming to terms with her own basic needs and finding the strength within herself to admit to having them. It was a remarkable enough transformation for even Resa to recognize, which was saying a lot.

“I remember something else from when we first met,” Resa said, her quiet voice close to Jennifer’s ear. “Before the bullets started to fly.”

“Yeah?” Jennifer matched her lowered tone. “What’s that?”

“I remember sitting in that booth and shaking your hand good-bye…” Resa continued, pulling back slightly. “…and yet somehow knowing that it wasn’t really good-bye.” Her eyes met Jennifer’s own as she again recalled the encounter that had changed both their lives. “I remember looking at you and feeling your hand in mine and thinking how small it was but also how strong and steady and warm.” A tingle shot up Jennifer’s spine. “And then the next thing I knew I was watching you walk across the bar and I felt this incredible…urge to go after you. It was like…like panic. I didn’t even think about it. Just called out for you to stop, which you did, and the next thing I knew I was trying desperately to think of some reason for you to not leave. Fortunately, I remembered Manny and his gang–”

Jennifer let out an involuntary laugh. “’Fortunately’ is not the word I would have chosen,” she said even as she reveled in the pleasure of hearing her own impact on the woman who had taught her how to love.

“Yeah, well, you know what I mean.”

And Jennifer did, but there was a part of her that couldn’t help toying with her partner. “So, if you didn’t want to lose me then why did you try so hard to get rid of me later?”

“For your sake. Things had gotten out of control and I was hoping to get rid of you before the Vartans could figure out who you were and retaliate.” She smiled. “But you wouldn’t leave.”

“Damn right.”

“And now it looks like I won’t be getting rid of you anytime soon.”

“Again I say, damn right!”

“I gather that’s okay with you then,” Resa murmured, both amused and delighted. “The not leaving.”

“Of course. After all, we have a bridle to work towards.”

“Oh, of course.” Resa kissed her twice upon the warm, ever so inviting lips. “I wouldn’t forget that.”

Silence descended for several minutes and Jennifer was starting to relax just enough to grow sleepy when Resa stirred her with her next statement.

“I feel a little guilty,” she said softly.

Surprised, Jennifer pulled back and frowned at her. “Why?”

Blue eyes looked sheepish. “I never thought I’d be this happy,” Resa admitted.

Relief flooded the younger woman who in turn smiled. “Well, get used to it,” she said, poking her finger into Resa’s chest. “Because I intend to do everything in my power to make you this happy for a very long time.”

“But we won’t always be,” Resa pointed out, her brows knitted slightly in concern.

“That’s true,” Jennifer agreed. “We’re both too strong-willed to not fight. But that’s just part of any relationship.” She squeezed Resa’s hand. “I’m not worried about it. We’ll get through whatever we need to, I’m sure of it. We have too good of a foundation.”

Resa listened and felt that tiny sliver of concern fall by the wayside. It was the answer she knew and had expected, but she wanted to address the point nonetheless, knowing that communication was the key to every good relationship and it was an instrument she needed to learn to play if she was ever going to be a successful partner in their particular duet. With that in mind, however, she realized there was also another thorny subject that had been bothering her for the past few hours, one that she found she could not escape, so she asked,

“What about your mother?”

Jennifer sighed, rubbing her forehead against Resa’s broad shoulder as a wave of fatigue crested over her. “What about her?” she grumbled.

The dark-haired women slipped two fingers under her companion’s chin and tipped her head up so their eyes could meet. “Do you think what your father said was true? That she’ll calm down and come around?”

Jennifer took several minutes to genuinely consider the question, not really wanting to address the issue but also recognizing Resa’s own need to better understand the always complicated nature of her familial relationship.

“Honestly,” she said after a long pause. “Yes and no. Obviously she’ll calm down. Otherwise Dad will have to sedate her…” She cocked her head to one side. “…which sounds strangely appealing at the moment.” The two women shared a brief grin before Jennifer grew serious again. “But, as for coming around…well, that’ll take time. She’s a stubborn lady and I know this whole revelation isn’t what she wanted for me. I know she had all sorts of dreams, what with me being her only daughter. But I can’t live my life for the expectations of others. Including her. Especially her. And, deep down I know she doesn’t really want me to. She’s an independent person. Very smart. And she doesn’t always conform to the rules, either, so on some level, after the initial shock has worn off, I honestly think there’s a chance she might allow herself to accept us. It would make her happier if I was with a man, sure. I understand that. Even I know life would be tons easier in all of the superficial areas if I was with a guy. But I want more out of life than superficial ease. I want happiness. I want fulfillment.” Her voice lowered a notch. “I want love.”

“You have it,” Resa assured her, tightening her hold around the smaller woman’s waist.

Jennifer’s eyes shimmering a bit in the moonlight. “I know,” she whispered and leaned forward to place a long, tender kiss upon her companion’s awaiting lips. “I know.” She laid herself back down, resting her cheek against Resa’s chest and soaking up the warmth of their embrace. “I want Mom to accept me,” she continued after a bit, trying her best to explain her heart to Resa. “But I don’t need her to.” She turned her head to lay a quick kiss against her lover’s neck. “You’re the only one I really need.”

“Thank you,” Resa whispered, knowing that there were no words in existence that could ever fully summarize how much thanks, indeed, that she owed to the woman by her side. All she did know for certain is that she would spend the rest of her life trying to find a way to ensure her companion knew the full extent of her gratitude and commitment.

“You’re welcome,” Jennifer answered as her eyes slowly closed of their own accord and she gave in at last to the yawn that had been threatening for quite a while.

Moments later, Resa joined her and together the rhythm of their breathing slowed to the lead them to the edge of unconsciousness. A quiet contentment descended over the two women as the toll of the long day finally came forward to take its claim…

….and we, dear readers, will use this opportunity to make our departure, leaving them cradled in the night’s gentle embrace, and watching as they’re drawn into a peaceful slumber so well deserved after a long, arduous yet ultimately triumphant day. You may have questions left unanswered but all I will say of their future is this: Beneath the stars they will sleep, comfortable and secure, until somewhere past midnight one will groggily awaken, wipe tired eyes and, noting their surroundings, gently prod the other to climb out of sleep and into bed where, for an hour or so, sleep is banished entirely as more pressing interests are pursued. Interests that are wholly their own and not ours upon which to intrude.

And so the day ends much as it began, with the two women nestling in each others arms, grateful beyond measure for that embrace and all the meaning that it contains within. Their first day together as a couple is behind them, their first definite, defiant, tumultuous and true step in what will prove to be a long and fulfilling journey has been taken. Many more steps will follow, of course, some confident and assured, some hesitant and some downright awkward. But what is important to note is that, regardless of the missteps and stumbles, the steep hills and surprising turns that await them, they will take this journey side-by-side.

And you can rest assured, my friends, that by simply having the strength to be themselves, no matter what, the courage of these two women, in parts great and small, though never, ever insignificant, will change the world…

 

finis

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