A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
For those who got tired of waiting every week, here’s the complete story:
The Ballad of Lisa and Lacey
Lacey was not a lesbian. In fact, after all these years, she wasn’t even bi-curious. She considered herself a realist. She had a degree in Business Admin, and had worked for the same mega-multinational coffee company for so long she was on the day shift. She still told her friends she was turning irony into a career. She lived without frills in a three story walk-up in what was rapidly becoming a trendy neighborhood. Her real name was Lucinda, but a boyfriend from her freshman year had called her Lacey (after her man-catcher underwear) and the name had stuck. She had two discreet tattoos, but aside from that and her fingerprints, she could have been any woman looking 30 in the face and wondering “Where’d the time go?” But Lacey, as far as Lacey knew, was unique, because every year, regular as May the first, she packed two expensive suitcases and went on vacation — with Lisa.
Lisa was a secret that had started one sharp rain April evening, nearly a decade earlier, when the woman who was weeping spilled her coffee. The neighbourhood wasn’t trending then, and the high-heeled woman was out of place. Lacey, bored beyond relief, took pity on her and strolled over with a moist cloth to offer damage control, and even though she didn’t know it at the time, it was love at first wipe.
That was the beginning. A random gesture that stretched into three more days. On the second night, over a very late, after work, dinner Lisa explained that long distance wasn’t the best ingredient for love, and she’d been unceremoniously dumped in favour of someone closer at hand. Her heart was torn but not broken. Lacey, after two too many glasses of wine, offered that love was indeed a bastard and that three years of university had left her with no one and nothing but debt and doubt and no way out. They toasted their equally maddening and mixed up lives and decided two survivors needed to survive. Later, in Lisa’s hotel lobby, there was a fragile secular two cheek kiss and a promise of lunch.
The next day was an afternoon, wet with glistening streets from a sun broken spring rain morning.
“Do you have a passport?” Lisa said, angling her eyes down and out of the bright bleached cafe window.
Lacey had a passport, somewhere. It was left over from a less than successful Greek and Roman senior trip. She looked skyward trying to remember if it was still at the bottom of her sock drawer or had she put it with the income tax.
“I know this might sound crazy but the thing is — the reason I’m here,” Lisa pointed down, “Is we were going to take a trip to Europe.” There was a pause, “Obviously we’re not going to now, but I — um — I still have the tickets.” There was another pause, “And the tour company says I can’t get the money back.”
Lisa held out her hands, empty and open. There was silence.
“Are you asking me? I-I-I can’t afford something like that.”
“No, no. It’s all paid for. Flight, hotels, food, everything. It’s all-inclusive, five star. All we have to do is show up at the airport.”
“No.” Lacey took a breath, “No, I can’t. I’ve got school. I’ve — I’ve got a job. I’ve got … I — I can’t.”
“Why not? Paris, a cruise down the Rhone river, the Riviera, back to Paris for a couple of days and home. Two weeks. It’s the chance of a lifetime.”
It was. It was the chance of a lifetime.
“Tell them you’re sick. Tell them your aunt died. Tell them whatever. Come on! I really don’t want to go alone.
“Why — why me? You must have friends,” Lacey said, shaking her head.
“It’s the day after tomorrow, and everybody I know is back home. And they’ve got kids and commitments and everything’s all so complicated with them. This is just the sort of wild and crazy thing I need to do right now.”
The sun slanted across the table, but it was slowly fading as more clouds moved into the sky. It darkened the room and closed them in together.
“We click, Lace. We’re simpatico. Come on, please. It’ll be fun.”
And there on the afternoon edge of dark and light, Lacey knew it would be fun. It would be bright and dancing with sprinkling fairy lights and rippling silver water, and it would be like nothing she’d ever done before. Lacey looked across the table. It was almost time for her to go to work. She could see Lisa’s face clearly, and it was friendly and open and warm, and she was smiling.
The next day was easy. There had been a few “what ifs” from the shadows the night before, but with her rent paid, $306.00 in the bank, a credit card (with not that much on it) and bankable parents, Lacey finally went to sleep — with Lisa taking her picture in front of the Eiffel Tower. In the morning, she found her passport (sock drawer) and telephoned Lisa with all the details. They agreed to meet for dinner at Lisa’s hotel. Then she telephoned work and killed off her grandmother (not the live one.) Tony, the assistant manager, who’d “accidently” brushed past her ass more than once, was really totally sorry and offered to talk if she needed to but could only give her a week off — without pay. That didn’t bother Lacey. It was only a part-time job, and she didn’t really like it that much anyway. Besides, she had a feeling Tony would probably re-hire her. Then she went out to the university and borrowed a suitcase from Shannon, who was really totally sorry as well and said she’d cover Lacey’s classes for her — just in case. At some point, she thought about telephoning the parents, but she just wasn’t up for the trial by combat her mother would put her through. And she already had a pretty good idea what kind of mountain of grief they’d give her if this thing went bad. It wasn’t worth it to start the process early. And that was that. It was that simple. By the time Lacey was back in her apartment, looking at the open, empty suitcase, she had disconnected herself. For the next two weeks, she could say and do — and be — whatever she wanted to be, including, as it turned out, Lisa’s daughter.
That’s what they decided to do, at dinner that evening, just in case anyone on the tour asked — and, according to Lisa, somebody was bound to ask. Actually, it wasn’t that big a stretch: the two women had similar colouring and hair, and anyway it was a lot easier to explain than “we met at a coffee shop three days ago.”
They tried it out on the bright smile hotel server when he brought the bill, and he seemed particularly pleased that they’d confided in him — after admitting that he thought they were sisters.
“I don’t have a sister.” Lisa said, after he’d gone.
“Neither do I.”
Lacey laughed, “Brothers?”
“Brother,” Lisa corrected.
Lacey held up three fingers.
“All older,” she said.
“Oh, my God,” Lisa said. “I have one and that’s bad enough.”
Lacey held up her wine glass and shook her head.
“You don’t wanna know. But here’s a toast to the sisters we never had.”
Their glasses barely touched, and the high-pitched single tink was inaudible — except to the two of them.
“And I want you to know, I promise to be the best daughter you never had.”
Lisa drank at her wine, set it down and smiled.
“I have a daughter, Lace, and a son.”
Lacey held the wine glass to her mouth to conceal her surprise.
“And they aren’t very much younger than you are.”
Lisa waited. Lacey set her glass down. She wasn’t sure what her reaction should be. This changed things. It wasn’t “just us girls” going on an adventure anymore. Lacey knew that Lisa was older but … she had never suspected she was anybody’s mother. Mothers and girls were different. Mothers didn’t get dumped by bastard lovers; they got divorced. Mothers had things, possessions — stuff. Things they had to worry about. Girls worried about whether or not their underwear matched. Mothers had responsibilities. But the big problem was mothers and girls weren’t equals. Lacey picked up her glass again.
“I’m only 37, Lace.” Lisa said anticipating the question, “I had Ben and Courtney when I was quite young.”
“Where are they?”
Lacey sipped her wine and set it down.
“What? How come — uh?”
“Let me show you.” Lisa picked her telephone out of her handbag. She tapped and swiped a few times and then handed it to Lacey.
“That’s them at the airport when I left on Monday. Ben, Court and Bertram — my husband.” Lisa said, reaching her finger across to point.
“I don’t understand. Who’d you have the fight with here on Tuesday, then?”
“That was something that hasn’t been working out for a couple of years, but neither one of us knew how to end it. So we just conjured up a big fight and now it’s over.”
“So your husband?”
“No. Bert’s safe at home,” Lisa looked at her watch, “Probably just climbing into bed with his receptionist.”
“Oh,” Lacey said with some distaste.
“It’s no sin. What do you think I was doing Monday night? We live in a very small town, Lacey. Everybody knows everybody. I just prefer to keep my marital lapses away from the local rumour mill; that’s all. So every year, rather than have my particulars discussed around the local campfires, I take a business,” Lisa made finger quotes in the air, “trip to Europe.”
“And your husband knows?”
“He knows something.”
“What about the kids?”
From the picture they obviously weren’t children.
“They’re both old enough to hear the gossip,” Lisa shrugged, “That’s why I try to be as discreet as possible.”
“So why drag me along?”
“Spur of the moment. Like I said, we click, you and I. You’re smart, witty. You’re kind. You were kind to me. It feels right, Lace. I can talk to you. I just want to go and have fun for a couple of weeks. A ‘just us girls’ adventure.”
Lacey drank the last of her wine. Oddly, she felt very sophisticated, just then.
Later, back in her apartment, Lacey looked at the open, empty suitcase, closed her eyes to think and the next thing she knew she was sitting in a cafe with a bottle of red wine and Lisa — and the spring sunshine warm in her hands. At least, that’s what she remembered — even now what she remembered. Everything else was just waking up and sleeping and waking up again in the white noise confusion of airports and airplanes and jetlag and the foreign sounds of travel. It was Monday or something, in this movie, but nobody seemed to care. People were eating soup and smoking and making noises she’d never heard before. But it was her movie too, and Lisa was laughing in French and the waiter smiled at Lacey like a grandfather and poured both glasses full. She refocused her eyes and it suddenly occurred to her that the big church sitting next to her was Notre Dame — from all the movies. But the river wasn’t a movie: it was the Seine — and the people were French, and that was Lisa, and she was Lacey, and for the first time in forever the world was pinch-me real again.
Lisa lifted her glass and touched it to Lacey’s. Tink.
Lacey lifted her glass.
“Paris,” she repeated.
After that, there was no beige-green apartment anymore, no fruit smell in the stairwell, no winter wet buses, no back-row bored lectures, no stand around coffee stained evenings — no — no anything. Those were all more than an ocean away and belonged to Lucy, a third year admin student with a plague of good intentions. She liked Lucy — she really did — but they barely knew each other. Lucy was Lucy — somebody else. She was the girl Lisa called “Lace.” And Lace spent her days wandering through centuries of tour-guided art and architecture, until, utterly overwhelmed by beauty, she and her mother had to stop and sit and try and make sense of where they’d been and what they’d seen. The first day, they rejoined the tour later in the evening, but after that they didn’t. They went off by themselves to eat and drink and flirt with their laughable French. On the second night, they meet a couple of unlikely lawyers who bought them blonde Belgium beer but gallantly made their goodbyes when Lace called Lisa ma mere. Luckily, nobody laughed — until “les avocats” were gone. The next night, they followed detailed instructions to an around-the-corner subterranean club called La Fee Verte where they danced into the morning to ferocious Techno-Dutch DJ music and got lost going back to the hotel which was only three streets away. On the last night, they hired a taxi that drove them deep into the Paris night, twinkling with magic. He charged them outrageously but waited patiently at Sacre Coeur and again while, starlit and sleepy, they had a last glass of wine in the empty shadows of Montparnasse. The next day, Lace and her mother left Paris, the two of them sleeping quietly behind their sunglasses, as the tour bus swayed its way to the Rhone Valley. Seeing the two women curled up together, nobody on the tour believed the mother and daughter story anymore.
Paris had been fun, but it was the river Lacey remembered. Later, Cote D’Azur was too noisy and crowded and dancing, and when they went back to Paris, it was too short, too sad, too stilted. So, it was the river, long and lazy, that Lacey saw when she closed her eyes. The gliding evening light turning into night. The world around them fading away into shadows and stars and shiny rippling fingers that trailed along beside them. And the two lines of endless water spreading out behind them like the silver wings of a great dark serpent, pushing them forward and swallowing their tracks. And they were together alone in the shallow darkness as if no one could ever find them there. So, in the late evening they took their coffee on deck, which was surprisingly cold, and talked until the steward suggested brandy (he always suggested brandy) and then brought them each a blanket so they could remain there in the huge, whispering night. Over the years, Lacey had rewoven those nights into a single thread, hopelessly knotted and twisted together, but for her it would always be Lisa. Elegant, not delicate, impossible to unravel with maybe a single beginning but certainly no perceivable end.
“When we get to the Riviera, let’s dress up and go someplace expensive and eat caviar and drink champagne until dawn?”
“I’ll unpack my finest blue jeans.”
“I’m sure they have dress shops in Cote D’Azur, Lace.” Lisa said, “I can see you in something slinky and black — cut down to here. You can borrow my silver chain and… we’ll do your nails and let’s get your hair done?”
Lacey hadn’t had her hair done since her aunt did it for her in middle school.
“I’m not a Barbie?”
Lisa paused and looked at Lacey.
“Of course not.”
Lisa laughed. “I’m Barbie. You’re Skipper.”
“Skipper? Like from Gilligan’s Island?”
“No, Skipper — Barbie’s little sister. Didn’t you have Skipper?”
“No, I must have missed that. We were poor people. All I had was Barbie. I didn’t even have a Ken.”
“Poverty’s a bitch,” Lisa said, swirling the brandy glass in the palm of her hand.
“I don’t know,” Lacey shrugged, “Seems like a good idea. There’s lots of jobs.”
“No, really? Business Administration? You’re not a bean counter.”
“Yeah, I am, actually. I — uh — I — this might sound weird, but I just love economics. Don’t laugh. It’s cool. The thing is a degree in economics doesn’t get you anywhere, so I thought I’d get into it, with something that pays the rent and see where it goes.”
“Good idea, I guess, but you should do what you love.”
Lacey couldn’t help herself.
“Is that what you do?”
“Of course.” Lisa spread her arms into the night.
“Okay, next year you can be Skipper. The mother-daughter thing hasn’t really worked, has it?” Lisa said, lifting her glass.
“Yeah, where do you want to go?”
“Not at all. Aren’t you having fun?”
“You graduate next year. Let’s take a month and go to Italy.”
“Whoa, I’m a bit lost. I thought this was your annual romantic…” Lacey opened her eyes wide, gritted her teeth and frantically pushed her hands back and forth without touching.
“Well, I never did it that way, but okay.”
Lisa held up her hand and stopped Lacey.
“Look around you. You’re in France — on a boat — floating down the Rhone, snuggly warm, drinking cognac by candlelight under twinkling stars. How much romantic do you need?”
“There was a scandal when I was in high school. You’ve never lived in a small town, Lace. Believe me, small towns thrive on scandal. Anyway, I got married very quickly. He was from an old family and I was from a rich one, so everybody was happy. Three years later, I was a miserable, bad housewife with two kids. My father was dead, my mother had a nervous breakdown, my brother was busy losing the family fortune and my husband decided he wanted to be a dentist.”
“What did you do?”
“I broke his nose!”
“Oh, my God, Lis!” Lacey laughed out loud and put her hands to her face.
“I didn’t mean to. It was instinct.” Lisa set her glass down. “I was bending over, loading the dishwater, and he came up behind me and grabbed my ass. I had one of those Telfon pans in my hand, and I just turned around and let him have it. Bam! Knocked him cold. There was blood everywhere. It was just a total disaster.”
Lacey was still laughing.
“Anyway, Bert was really good about it. He told everybody he fell down the stairs.”
Lisa picked up her glass and sipped the brandy.
“After that, we kinda had an arrangement. But it occurred to me that the only way out of the mess I was in was to quit being the dutiful daughter. So I got my mother to sign over her shares in the company, and I booted my brother out.”
“Wow!” Lacey was still half laughing.
“Good thing, too. The company was going under. I had to work all the hours that God made just keep it going, get mom back in the land of the living, and put Bert through dental school. But it was the least I could do. He still can’t snorkel properly.”
The two woman giggled.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get my job back. Tony likes me.”
There was a pause.
“Not like that! Well, maybe he does. But I don’t. Anyway, they always need people, so after my exams I’ll probably work full time again — for the summer. It’s a shit job, but it keeps me from sponging off the parents.”
“Do you need money?” Lisa stirred her coffee and set the spoon down.
“I don’t wanna do that, Lis.”
“Neither do I, but I thought I’d ask.”
“Call it a graduation present.”
“Come on! I owe you like a million dollars now. I can’t!”
“Of course you can! All you have to do is say yes and buy some decent luggage. Rome! Florence! Venice!”
“Here comes the steward; we’ll ask him. See what he thinks.”
“No! Lisa, no!”
Lisa straightened up in her chair.
“Madam,” he said, setting down the brandy, “Mademoiselle.”
“Monsieur, s’il vous plait,” Lisa spoke in rapid French, Lacey caught “Roma” and another word or two, but not much else. When she was finished, the steward answered and they both laughed.
“What did you tell him?”
“I said — no, I’ll tell you next year — in Rome.”
“Lis, I can’t say yes. A lot of things can happen in a year. Who knows? Maybe you’ll meet somebody.”
“I doubt that.”
“You know what I mean.”
Lisa lifted her brandy with her palm and warmed it in her hand.
“Okay, I’ll leave it alone. But let’s do this: I’ll send you a Christmas card with the itinerary. Bert’s probably going to take the kids skiing in Canada again this year, so when you get the card, call me. How’s that?”
“Okay,” Lacey said, feeling mean.
And it was the next day or maybe the next that they landed at Cote D’Azur.
It wasn’t sadness; it was worse than that. It was the utter futility of normal. They had left each other at the airport. Lisa had a connecting flight, so there was no time for any real goodbyes — just a few inane remarks, a long tired hug, and Lisa holding Lacey’s hands together and pulling them to her lips.
“I had such a wonderful time,” she said, smiling and warm, and kissed Lacey’s fingers. The two women stood for a few seconds, wordless.
“Au revoir,” Lisa said in a whisper and turned and walked away. Lacey watched her go, saw her change, almost immediately, from a casual strolling tourist to a clip-stepped deliberate professional. And then she simply melted away into the crowd. That was the first alone, standing on the edge of Europe, unable to step off — the heavy Versace bag Lisa had bought her, keeping her from floating into the air. And the strange thing was she would have willingly floated away because the other alternative was — what now? And she honestly hadn’t thought about that. She hadn’t ever considered that Lisa and Lacey would eventually end. So she just stood there.
“I should go home,” she thought. But … she didn’t even know where to get her suitcase — Shannon’s suitcase. Shannon? A faraway friend that Lacey vaguely remembered.
“I should probably go home.”
And she did go home, instinctively, moving through time and space until the taxi stopped somewhere familiar — and her key fit the lock, and she closed the door behind her, exhaled and left her suitcase in the hall. She sat down in the living room, under the windows on the same brown sofa. She slid the Versace bag Lisa had bought her off her shoulder onto the floor and lay down. She hugged the throw pillow to her head with both hands, and after a few minutes she fell asleep.
Days, weeks, even months later, things hadn’t changed. She’d got her job back at the coffee shop when she showed up in a too-tight t-shirt and offered Tony a bag of dead grandma guilt for firing her. She eventually went back to school, and even though her exams were difficult, they weren’t impossible. Her GPA suffered, but she passed. After the final final, she met Shannon and a few others for drinks. Too much tequila and she started to cry.
“You must miss your grandma a lot,” Shannon said. It didn’t help, and Lacey went home. She called the parents. Talked to her brothers. Telephoned an ex-boyfriend, but that ended badly with her screening her phone calls and anxiously counting the days until her period. After that, she mostly just went to work and came home.
She felt tired, used up — as if she’d been washed too many times and now she was gray and dull and shapeless — like some discarded dishcloth tucked in the elbow of the pipes under the sink.
After resisting the urge for several weeks, she googled Lisa and found her, smiling and warm, at a Farmer’s Market in Milwaukee. The website was Radisson River, a family-owned food processing company in Wisconsin, and Lisa was the majority owner and CEO. She was married with two children, and the company made a variety of condiments and sold them in Japan. And after that, Lacey didn’t care anymore.
She tried texting but couldn’t figure out what to say, so she just said “hi” a couple of times, but that didn’t get a response. Finally, she telephoned and a very nice woman said Ms. Anderson was out of the office but she could leave a message and Ms. Anderson would return her call — “Who could she say was calling, please?” It was all too confusing for Lacey. She didn’t want to talk to Ms. Anderson; she wanted to talk to Lisa, and she couldn’t say who was calling because she didn’t know who she was supposed to be.
“What is this concerning?”
“That’s fine. I’ll call back, thank you.”
But she didn’t call back; it was too difficult. So she went to work and came home and usually watched TV most of the night. She ate mac and cheese and frozen pizza and leftovers from the coffee shop. She got angry with Lisa, angry with herself, and half cleaned the apartment several times. She went clubbing for awhile and found another ex-boyfriend, but that didn’t last. She decided this was stupid and she needed to get on with her life — but that didn’t last either. And by the end of the summer, she’d fallen into sleeping late and doing nothing, unconsciously caught in the slow leak of her life, watching the endless tick of minutes accumulating — until it was time to sleep again.
The telephone rang on Wednesday afternoon. It woke Lacey and before she was conscious enough to ignore it, she picked it up and said hello.
“Hi, Lace. This is Lisa.” There was a giggle, “Remember me?”
Foggy with sleep and fooled by her dreams, Lacey sank her head back into the pillow, relieved.
“Oh, Lis. Where’ve you been? I was so worried.”
There was a second of silence.
“Wisconsin?” Lisa questioned.
Lacey didn’t understand and there was more silence.
“Are you alright, Lace? Did I call at a bad time?”
“Yeah — uh. No, I’m good. No — um — I must have fallen asleep. I — uh — What time is it?”
“Lace. It’s the middle of the afternoon.”
Lace? Nobody called her Lace. Lisa called her Lace. Lisa? Lisa!
“Just so. Surprised?”
Lacey was surprised. She sat up on the sofa, closed her eyes tight, yawned and stretched her free arm out in front of her, fingers wide.
“What are you doing? Where are you?”
“I’m at home, but I’m coming to see you — tomorrow. I’ve got some people I need to meet and some papers I have to sign, so I’m going to fly in, in the morning. I’ll be busy all day but we can have dinner at my hotel. Okay? Say, seven?”
Lacey had talked to Lisa so many times in the last few months: in the shower, on the bus, at work, slowly falling asleep. She had said so many things to her, but now all she could manage was:
“Yeah, that’s good. Yeah. Seven.”
“You remember the hotel?”
“Uh huh — yeah, no problem.”
“Okay, it’ll be great. You can tell me all your good stories and we’ll drink wine and have that chocolate — uh — chocolate, whatever we had last time. I’m at work, Lace. I have to go, but I’ll see you tomorrow. Okay?”
“Okay, go back to sleep. See you tomorrow. Bye.”
“Bye, Lis.” But the phone was already dead.
Lacey didn’t remember what happened next — it was so long ago. But the ache was real — she could remember that — and the excitement and the hurt at the very bottom of her belly and how all the anger dissolved away like sugar in the rain when she saw Lisa sitting in the restaurant. She tried to appear casual. She stopped and looked deliberately where Lisa wasn’t, but Lisa was already out of her chair, the purpose of her heels sounding on the wooden floor. When Lacey turned her head back, Lisa was there and she had her hands on Lacey’s shoulders. She pulled her in like a plush toy.
“Oh, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed you. I’ve missed you.” Lisa said, running all the words together.
Lacey knew the voice and the feel, but it was the smell of Lisa’s hair and her makeup that made Lacey cry. She swallowed as Lisa stepped back and ran her hands down Lacey’s arms to hold her in place.
“You let your hair grow. I love it. Come,” Lisa said, turning and pulling Lacey along, “I’ve got the same table we had last time.”
The server was already there, holding the chair out for her. Lacey stopped and carefully touched the tears out of the corner of her eye and then sat down.
“I’ve ordered Cote du Rhone something or other. Can you remember what we drank on the river? Are you hungry? No? Right, we’ll look at the menus later. Let’s try the wine and talk for a minute,” Lisa said, sitting down, pushing the menus aside and pointing at Lacey’s glass — all in one motion. The server immediately poured wine for Lacey.
“Pick it up. Pick it up.” Lisa reached across with her wine glass. There was a loud “cling” as the two women misjudged the distance between them and the glasses collided. A couple of people turned their heads to the sound.
“I’m so excited to see you.” Lisa sipped her wine, “How are you? You sounded terrible over the phone. I thought I was going to have to come and pick up the pieces.”
“I’m fine, Lis.”
And Lacey knew she was going to Rome.
Time got lost in the big restaurant and they lingered and talked. They remembered Europe vividly — retold and laughing. And when Lisa asked, Lacey told her about Tony and the tight t-shirt and sailing through her exams and how things were good and she was going to be an aunt for the fourth time (last brother.) Lisa had pictures of her children and Lacey asked questions in the right places. Ben was going to be a senior (“God, I feel old!”) and Courtney was already picking out universities and working on the second love of her life. Work? Work was busy — too busy … but … I’ve been doing that all day, let’s not talk about it tonight. What about …? And, so, by the time they were sharing dessert (poached pears/two forks) the evening was gone and the restaurant had filled up. It was clattery and loud, and both women were having trouble keeping the noise out of their conversation, so they decided to take their coffee on the 6th floor patio. The city lights were already on and they sat for a moment, admiring the night.
“It’s beautiful up here.”
“I’ve been staying at this hotel forever, and I’ve never done this before.”
“Just never thought about it. I was always too busy — uh — doing other things.”
The night was close, warm to the touch. The faint and full glare of the buildings around them hung in the air, searching their light into the night and hiding the two women together in intimate shadows. The sound of the city, low and breathing, was somewhere beyond them — below them — holding them up. There was a red goblet candle on the table, and they watched its tiny flame trembling between them and wondered what to say next.
“I found an apartment in Rome?” Lisa said tentatively.
“We need to talk, Lis.”
“I know, but I don’t know what …” Lisa’s voice trailed off.
“I need to know what we’re doing.”
“It’s not very complicated. It doesn’t have to be complicated. We had a great time, and I want to do it again.”
“That’s not what I mean. I need to know what we’re doing? You and I?”
Lisa looked beyond Lacey into the night.
“You’re spending all this money. I can’t keep up with that. And then what? Are you going to disappear again? Am I just supposed to wait? God, I’ve been miserable for four months, wondering what was going on.”
“I’m sorry, Lace. I thought you needed time to think. You said you did. Then when you called, I didn’t know what to do.”
“You knew I called?”
“Call display. Jennifer knew who you were before you hung up.”
Lacey looked stricken. Lisa reached over, took Lacey’s hand and pulled it across the table toward her. She covered it with her other hand and held it there.
“Look, Lace, this is me. I’m filthy rich, I’ve got a great job that’s tons of hard work, but I wouldn’t trade for anything. I’ve got two beautiful children who are a pain in the ass and I happen to like my husband — just not that much. But the bottom line is I want something more than that. Something that’s just for me. Unfortunately, when a woman in my position climbs above the glass ceiling, everybody thinks they have the right to look up her skirt. I just refused to give them the opportunity. I have a lot of people depending on me. So I take my private affairs outta town.”
“Okay,” Lacey interrupted, “But what am I? Where do I fit in? Why are you doing all this for a stranger?”
“We’re not exactly strangers, Lace. We slept together.”
“Yeah, in the same bed. But we didn’t do anything. It’s something I’d remember.”
Lisa let go of Lacey’s hand.
“Okay, but… This is what I want to do. We feel right, Lace. We have from the moment I met you. You’re funny. You’re happy. You’re smart. You’re kind. You’re full of life. You understand me — or at least you try to. You’re all the things I’ve never been and everything I’ve ever wanted.”
“I’m not gay.” Lacey said, shaking her head.
The night was long and quiet and longer still.
“Does it matter?”
Lacey looked at the questions in Lisa’s eyes and didn’t have any answers. But feeling the warm night holding her, watching the desperate little red fire shivering in front of her and seeing Lisa sitting across the table, smiling and warm, Lacey did feel alive, and, strangely, she felt happy. For the first time in months, she felt as if she were Lacey again — and that she was everything Lisa said she was. She reached across and clasped Lisa’s hand.
“I don’t care, if you don’t.”
The next day felt different. It was different. There was something in the morning light that was — was — Lacey didn’t know what it was She opened the curtains to find it. She made the bed. She washed dishes. Lisa called from the airport to say goodbye. “I have to run. Call me if you need me. I’ll talk to you at Christmas.” After that, Lacey found two big green garbage bags. She went through her apartment, filled them up with four months of pizza boxes, trash and her miserable summer. She dragged them thumping down the stairs and threw them out. She registered for school, went to the grocery store, bought real food, and for the first time in weeks, showed up for work on time. That was it — time. Time. That was what was different. It sounded funny when Lacey said it out loud, and she wasn’t really sure what it meant, but it was real — like something touchable.
That year, Lacey went home for Thanksgiving and nearly got outnumbered by the parents, but, fortunately, the brothers showed up and turned them into Grandma and Grandpa. Rescued, Lacey relaxed and very soon she realized that “How’s school?” “Are you cooking anything?” and “We worry about you.” weren’t accusations. They were just questions, and there was nothing wrong with being Lucinda Ann, responsible daughter — or Aunt Lucy — or Wayne, Frank and Jerry’s little sister. In the end, they were all just Lacey, and being Lacey was kinda fun. She relinquished her room and slept on the basement sofa. She peeled potatoes, watched football, played video games and stayed away from the stove. She found some high school friends for drinks and listened to their stories, told a lie or two herself and flirted with somebody’s husband. And she found herself enjoying herself — remembering that real life was normal. Yet — and with no regret — she discovered this world was not her world anymore. Her home — her real home — was three flights up and looked into the street, and she lived her own life there.
She took another shift at the coffee shop for the extra money — four evenings a week instead of three — and spend the other nights studying hard, turning into a library rat the rest of the time. There it was again, time. It seemed to telescope — expanding and contracting to fill the space all around Lacey. Sometimes, yesterday was several weeks ago and sometimes last month was yesterday. But in it all — all the time available — the beginning was France and the next stop was Italy.
Lacey didn’t go to her parents’ house at Christmas. She pleaded work and school and even a little illness and promised to come before New Year’s. Instead, she waited for Lisa, hoping she’d come, thinking she would, planning for her visit. But Lisa didn’t come. She sent a set of Versace luggage that arrived on Christmas Eve with a simple Hallmark card that read “Merry Christmas. See you in May. L.” And she telephoned. And for over two hours on the night before Christmas, they were Lisa and Lacey, talking to each other in the dark, surrounded by the night. Then, in the last week of April — which was two weeks later — Lacey packed a suitcase and waited for Lisa.
And they went to Rome like two pilgrims looking for a private eternity. The apartment was small but it had a balcony, and if you leaned the right way, you could see St. Peter’s — so the next morning they walked it. It wasn’t very far, but they stopped at every opportunity, and by the time they found the long wall of the Vatican, the tourist lines were too long to conquer. So they abandoned organized religion, found an alley full of trattoria and put their feet up. They ate bread and cheese and spicy sausage, drank a couple of thick glasses of wine, and after that they were never really tourists again.
It was easy to live in Rome. They called themselves sisters and said they were teachers. They drank coffee in the morning and red wine at night. They ate and laughed and told each other stories. They flirted with the men in the shops on their street. They walked and got lost and walked again, seeing most of the “sites” by accident. They discovered they liked churches, dark with Caravaggio, and weekends in the park loud with children. They danced behind Fendi sunglasses and watched the rain from their balcony. It was spring. They bought flowers. The two single beds were on opposite walls and they stayed that way. Sometimes, Lacey would see Lisa, look at her and wonder if this was the woman she wanted — or was supposed — to be. And without ever trying, Lisa showed Lacey the quiet confidence of power — raw and deliberate.
“Never. It doesn’t matter what Bert thinks; he’s not going to divorce me. I’ve got a roomful of lawyers who play golf with Satan … and win. He’d end up with a handful of dental floss — and he knows it.”
And sometimes Lacey saw Lisa looking at her. She’d seen that look before — boy-shy and uncertain — and that wasn’t the Lisa that Lacey wanted to see.
They thought of taking the train to Venice, but never really did it. Although they did take a bus tour to Pompeii and had a picnic. They went to a flower show, saw a parade, watched fireworks, and late one night, crashed somebody’s wedding and danced with the bride. But mostly it was easy to live in Rome, and then one day, unexpectedly, it was time to go home.
Lisa left Lacey at the airport and Lacey watched her go, shouting “Arrivederci!” into the crowd. She saw Lisa’s hand in the air, laughed, turned on her heels, and with abrupt purpose, went home.
That year, Lisa came to Lacey’s graduation, sitting smiling, up front and incognito. They went for drinks after the parents went to bed. Lacey got a job with an investment company, but the hours were brutal and she had to dress for success. Six months later, she quit and went back to the coffee shop fulltime. Lisa called on Christmas Eve, and in May, they went to Spain.
That year, they really were pilgrims, walking the Camino de Santiago until, muscled, tanned and tired, they caught a train south. They bought bikinis in Malaga and spent the rest of the month drinking sangria and playing on the resort beaches of Costa del Sol. One night, far from sober, they got tiny matching “LOL” tattoos, just below the tan line. It was the year Tony got fired, and Lacey became assistant manager. It was the year the parents decided to sell the house. It was the year Ben went to Dental School.
“No, Lace. Bert isn’t Ben’s father. Haven’t I told you that story before? Ben’s father was a paper salesman from Chicago. I was a senior in high school, working weekends at the plant, and this guy — you should’ve seen him, Lace! He was drop-dead gorgeous. He drove a silver Vette and he had a smile that was just pure panty remover. Anyway, he’s selling paper — uh — I don’t really remember the details. But he took me to lunch and then he took me to dinner and he was from Chicago and … Don’t give me that look. He didn’t know I was 17, and he definitely didn’t know I was the owner’s daughter. Besides, I kinda launched myself at him. The poor guy really didn’t have a chance. Anyway, a couple of months later, all hell broke loose. Trust me, Lace, you don’t want to be rich-bitch pregnant in a small town. It’s amazing how many faces your friends have. So my parents and Bert’s parents got together, and we were married that summer.”
“What about Ben? Does he know?”
“Well, since Bert and I are the only ones left who actually know the truth, we decided to just leave it alone. Sometimes the truth isn’t the best way to go.”
The next year they went to Amsterdam, or was it London? London — then Amsterdam? Amsterdam, then London? Lacey couldn’t remember without thinking hard. But somehow that’s what happened; somewhere, without Lacey realizing it, the years just starting clicking away. Ben finished school and went to work with his father. The parents did sell the house and moved into that stupid condo nobody liked. Jerry and Jennifer had another baby. Wayne and Madison split up, got back together and finally divorced for good. Courtney got accepted at UCLA, moved to California and Lisa cried on the telephone. And somewhere, after Amsterdam (or was it London?) unable to control herself, Lacey found a lesbian lover — in fact, more than one. In fact, now that Lacey thought about it, quite a few more than one. It wasn’t that she felt the need especially, or even cared, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.
But that was the problem. Plagued with good intentions, Lacey had decided to do the right thing and everything had gone to hell from there. Actually, that wasn’t strictly true. She hadn’t planned any of it. She’d kinda fallen into it, like Alice down the rabbit hole. But that wasn’t true either — not really. Alice had never been to Wonderland before, and Lacey’d been going there for nearly ten years. She was an accomplice, not just a participant, and in the cold, dark soul of 4 o’clock in the afternoon, she knew that. Sitting on the brown sofa, looking out the window on a chilly all alone Christmas Eve, she knew, despite the stories she’d been telling herself, she was just as responsible for Lisa and Lacey as Lisa was. After all these years of living two different lives, juggling half-truths and lies, keeping her time with Lisa safely on the other side of the Atlantic, Lacey understood that. There was no longer any distance between the two women, and there was no use dressing it up in good intentions. She remembered way back when, on the boat — the first boat — down the Rhone, she’d asked:
“You’re so complicated. There’s all these layers. But I still don’t know what kind of a person gives all this to someone they hardly know?”
Lisa didn’t hesitate: “The same kind who accepts it.”
She should have known then. She did know then. The truth was, she just didn’t want to admit it. She didn’t want to think too hard about what makes a person put their real life on hold to play house once a year. Lisa understood and was willing, but Lacey had spent years diligently avoiding even thinking about it. It had been so simple. She had been so happy. So… But now — now was different, even though Lisa had called, several times, and every time had managed to reassure Lacey that everything was fine and that things were alright — now was Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve and without Lisa, Lacey realized she was no longer a girl, and she was sitting alone with a bottle of Cote du Rhone — and she had never intended to end up this way.
The irony was Lacey never intended to do anything — not that night — not ever. It was just the night. The warm spring night and the light — the half light smoothing through the glass wall open cabin door, fluttering the winter-length lace curtains. And the distant sounds of music, low over the water, elegant and primitive, and the Danube slowly dreaming them along. They were like shadows in the floating false twilight, unreal phantoms of themselves. Lisa on her stomach, half asleep and half covered in folded white marble. Lacey sitting in the doorway, all legs and carefully balanced. They’d been talking and drifting and talking and now quiet again, time out of mind.
“God, I’m tired,” Lisa sighed without actually speaking. “We must have walked a hundred miles today.”
Hypnotized by the shape of Lisa, statue grey in the teasing light, Lacey heard all the words but they were just sounds, female noises exhaled into the darkness. It was the deep even whisper of Lisa’s breath Lacey had been listening to, the slender tremors that moved her shoulders, slight and rising like a long lingering pulse. Unconsciously, Lacey had fallen into their rhythm — breathing in and breathing out. And she could see her there — Lisa — her face, her arm tucked under her chin, the fall of her hair, the sloping muscles of her back, the swell of her hips, all sculpted out of a moment in time. Time that was going to vanish, telescope into a memory and maybe even disappear. There was a deep sadness in that, that Lacey didn’t want to understand. She wanted forever. She wanted it for her — she wanted it for always — but more than anything else, she knew she wanted it for Lisa.
Lacey pushed herself out of the doorway, took three deliberate steps and knelt at the side of the bed. She put her hand on Lisa’s back. She could feel the warm of the touch between them. She moved her hand down across the tiny soft hair in the small of Lisa’s back. She could feel Lisa moving to follow her hand. She leaned forward and softly blew a long point of air up Lisa’s spine. Lisa twisted her shoulders, pushing her hips down into the bed. Lacey moved her face forward and kissed the intimate hollow between Lisa’s shoulders, wetting her lips with her tongue. There was a sound from Lisa’s throat, deep and moist. Lacey brushed Lisa’s hair away. She could see Lisa’s eyes, half awake and half aware. She ran her tongue slowly across Lisa’s shoulder bone and kissed her on the neck. She could feel the pulse jump. She kissed her again. She reached under Lisa’s cheek, turned her face and held it in her hands and then she kissed her, opening her lips with her tongue. It was luscious, long and tender with desire. She could feel Lisa’s hand reaching into her hair. Lacey moved her lips across Lisa’s cheek and, ragged with breath, kissed her again — bigger, fuller, more demanding. She could feel Lisa’s body reaching up to meet her. Lacey moved her mouth back and holding Lisa in her hands, paused — waited. Lisa opened her eyes and the two women looked at each other. There were no words. Lacey leaned forward.
“We can’t do this.” Lisa said, turning her head.
“We can’t, Lace.” Lisa pleaded, “We just can’t.”
Lacey smiled. “Yes, we can,” she said, slyly. “I’ve been practicing.”
Lisa turned her hips and tried to put her feet on the floor, but the sheets held onto her and she kicked her legs. Lacey leaned forward again and Lisa grabbed her wrist.
“No, Lace.” she said firmly, trying to sit up.
Lacey stayed on her knees, dumb with confusion. Unable to kick free from the sheets, Lisa pushed Lacey from the wrist and, off balance, Lacey sat down heavily. Lisa let go and, in one motion, swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up. She stepped over Lacey’s knee and her leg brushed against Lacey’s arm.
“Don’t!” Lisa said, finally and completely, stepped around the corner into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Hours later, or maybe ten minutes, Lisa opened the door and turned on the light. Lacey was back in the doorway, numb in the breeze. Lisa just stood there, in the green and gold #12 shapeless sports shirt she always slept in. More time passed.
“Say something,” Lacey said, without looking.
“It was you who said no. Way back when: ‘I’m not gay. Don’t expect me to be.’ You said it.”
“I know I did, but … I thought … I just thought.”
“What did you think?” Lisa cut her off, “Rub the old girl the right way and that’ll keep her happy?”
“No, Lis. It isn’t like that. You don’t understand.”
“No, Lacey. You’re the one who doesn’t understand. You made the rules. You made all the rules. Have they changed now? Nobody told me. I didn’t get that memo.”
“I just thought…”
“No, you didn’t. You didn’t think about tomorrow. Or the next day. You didn’t think about where this little escapade was going to leave me. You’re not gay, Lacey. Did you think I wasn’t going to notice?”
There were so many things to say, so much Lacey had to explain. But Lisa cut her off again.
“I know it was never me.” She said matter-of-factly. “It isn’t me you want. I can live with that. I have lived with that. But why is it always about you — always?”
“Me?” Lacey scolded, before she thought, “Me? You’re the one who’s going to leave me standing at the airport. And what do I get after that? A couple of phone calls. Three — if I’m lucky. And maybe, when you can fit me into your schedule, you show up for a visit. But, believe me, I don’t hold my breath waiting anymore. And do we ever do anything? No! We pretend we do, but we don’t. And I can’t come and see you. God, no! Your precious reputation couldn’t take that. I don’t even know those people and I’m scared of them. Bullshit! It’s not always about me.”
“You do the same thing.”
“Did you just hear yourself? You’re pathetic. If you want to stay in the closet, fine, but you’re keeping me in there with you. And it’s not even my closet.”
“That’s not true.”
There was a long pause.
“We’ve been doing this for eight years, Lis. Eight years. And in all that time, you’ve never been to my apartment. Never. Not once. It’s a ten minute cab ride from your hotel. I should know; I’ve done it often enough. You’re so damn worried about where this leaves you. Where does that little fact leave me? Where has it ever left me? I was just trying to be nice. I wanted to be nice to you. It’s all I ever wanted to do.”
There was silence — a long silence.
“Turn off the light and go to bed, Lis. I’m too tired to fight with you, anymore.”
The next day was long and sunny and sad — and slowly they apologized to each other. It cut both ways and the hurt wouldn’t go away. Despite their best intentions, the distance between them was too uncomfortable to maintain. Intimate strangers unable to look at each other. That evening, they decided that the next day, in Vienna, they would cut things short and just go home. And that’s what they did.
At the airport, Lacey hurried Lisa along and Lisa lingered. Finally, they both ran for Lisa’s plane, and it was a quick hug — the first touch — and then goodbye. Lisa called as soon as she got home and many times after that. Each time, there was more Lisa and less distance.
Lacey stayed home that year. The parents’ condo was too small, the brothers weren’t interested and honestly neither was she. She took night courses in accounting and decided to learn French. There was time for such things.
And now it was the afternoon before Christmas and Lacey was pouring more wine into her glass when the telephone rang. She spilled some, grabbing the phone.
“Hi, Lace. This is Lisa. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Lis.”
There was a pause.
“Do you remember the first cruise we took, Lace, down the Rhone?”
“Remember the night I embarrassed you talking to the steward?”
“Yeah, I remember. You never did tell me what you said to him.”
“That’s what I need to tell you now. I told him that we weren’t a mother and daughter. I told him that we hardly knew each other and that I was an old dyke trying to seduce you into my bed. And you know what he said to me? He said, ‘Don’t worry, Madame. You’re not fooling anyone. The only one who doesn’t know it is your girlfriend.’ I’d like to go back to Paris and start over, Lace. Do you want to come?”