“Hey, Auggie, can I borrow some money?”
“If you want to splurge to impress a girl, use your own money. Or better yet, make mom and dad happy and bring her here.”
“We can’t do what we want to do here.”
“Ah. Say no more.”
“I get paid soon. I’ll pay you back.”
Auggie gave her a beer and sat at the table with her. “Dad got you again?”
She smiled. “He worked through Suzie.”
Auggie watched her scan through programs. She’d started out determined to channel the optimism of her older sister, but it drained away to just about zero, by now.
“I should just choose at random. I’m not good at any of it. I don’t want to do any of it.”
Auggie nudged the beer closer. She drank, a little ungraciously.
“It’s okay if you have a few false starts. You’re good at lots of things. You’ll find them.”
She sighed. “Sorry for being an ass.”
“Eh. Being an ass isn’t what you’re good at.”
She caught a whiff of cologne. “You have a date, too?”
“Suzie set me up with someone from work.”
“That’s never worked out for us before. But…” She waved.
“It makes her so happy, doesn’t it? That’s her real calling: matchmaker.”
Ed rode faster than was wise, eager to see Emma. She’d be waiting outside the hotel, Ed knew, in her dark brown coat, with a box of baking for Suzie. She would be wearing her silly, unfashionable dress, or the dark blue skirt. Those were clothes for special occasions, she’d explained, when Ed complimented the skirt. She worried that they weren’t appropriate, and Ed hadn’t figured out a way to suggest buying something less dowdy without hurting her feelings. She was all for individual style, but the idea of Emma in a cute, short dress that showed off her legs kept Ed up some nights.
She barely had time to say hello before Emma was looking toward the front desk, with all the subtlety of a dog hinting that it would like your steak, just if you weren’t going to need it. She was too shy to go into an unfamiliar shop without some coaxing, but for whatever reason sex was in the safe category. It took her by surprise. She would have thought she’d be shy.
She was not shy. Ed had given up suggesting dinner first.
She cast a look over her shoulder, undressing in the light from the window. It was the dowdy dress today, and slid down to her feet with a whisper. Ed watched her reach behind her to unfasten her sturdy beige bra, that matched her sturdy beige underwear. It made her knees turn to water, all of it. She reached out to do it for her.
She climbed up onto the bed and knelt there, watching Ed.
“I brought snacks,” she said, lifting the bag.
“Do you want to eat first?” she asked.
Ed watched the blue fingers of light slide over her skin when she moved to brush her hair back. The bag fell from her hand.
They ate later, messily, in bed. She put on something for Em to watch, and her gaze was instantly captured by it. She didn’t talk about her family or home life. The curfew made Ed think that her parents must be that old fashioned kind of strict. It couldn’t be all that happy, if they wouldn’t even let Em watch movies. Maybe it was religious.
She kissed her shoulder and Em smiled, tearing her eyes away to look at her.
Ed waggled her eyebrows, getting a giggle out of her. She scooted down into the bed, still streaked with green, because Ed hadn’t had time to wipe her lipstick off. She never seemed to mind.
“I was wondering. Would you like to come to dinner?”
“Oh god,” she mumbled, because Em’s mouth was hovering so close to her skin that the warmth of her breath spread through her in waves. “My house. With my family.”
The look of sudden terror brought out an exasperated laugh.
“They aren’t ogres, Em. It will be fine. They’ll love you.”
“You don’t want to come here?”
“I want to be with you. Wherever. But it is a little expensive,” she admitted.
“Oh!” She sat up. “I ought to…I’ll pay something…It’s only fair.”
“I know you don’t have a job.” She took her hand. “My parents will feed us.”
Emma looked down, holding Ed’s hand in both of hers. Ed saw the deep, steadying breath she took. “For dinner. Will my dress be all right?”
“You don’t have to dress…fancy,” she said. “Just regular clothes. You look really pretty in that shirt with the ribbons on the sleeves.”
“Okay.” She pulled her down, squeezing all the fun she could out of their time together.
When they left Emma offered her own credit. Her hand shook when she did, and there was a fine tension around her eyes that made Ed regret mentioning it.
She looked at Ed with that strange concentration she sometime had.
“It will be okay. It isn’t fair for you to pay all the time. It was poor manners.” She nodded, quick, and gave a determined smile. “It will be all right.”
Emma was waiting in the street in front of her building when she came to pick her up for dinner. The wind was sharp, driven by the upper city and the changing season. It fluttering the ends of her flowered scarf, tugging at her hair. She had her voluminous bag full of everything, and a covered bowl. Ed kissed her and tried to see what it was.
“I made potato salad.”
“It’s polite to bring something.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Ugh. I am the worst at remembering how to be polite.”
Her relief was immediate and obvious. She climbed onto the bike and pressed close, nestling her cheek against her back. Ed wished the ride would take forever, just so she could go on feeling her arms around her, squeezing breathlessly tight.
Emma waited while Ed parked, her eyes traveling over the house. Ed looked at it, seeing the peeling paint and the slumping stack of bicycles that the weeds had grown over.
“It’s so big and solid.”
Emma blushed. “I don’t know the right word. Homey.”
“Just wait. You’ll want to run away by the end. They’re nosy.”
“They must be nice. You came from them.”
Emma had a way of making compliments seem like facts. She didn’t even look away from her worried examination of the house.
“Well, you don’t have to answer everything. they’ll ask a bunch of questions. Just ignore them when you want.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
“I’ll defend you, then.”
Everyone was clustered at the top of the stairs by the time their shoes were off, and Auggie was panting like he’d run.
“Honestly,” she muttered. Auggie winked.
“You must be Emma,” her father smiled.
“Can we get in the door, at least?”
Emma was painstakingly polite. She greeted the family with phrases that Ed had only ever read in books, and offered her bowl of potato salad with shaking hands. They peppered her with questions, mixed in with their usual noise. After each question there would be an awkward pause while she thought of the answer, even when it was something simple. Her laughter at jokes was just a little late, and small. Her family made the best of it. Ed ignored Suzie’s look. She knew it anyway. It was the “What are you thinking?” look.
About half way through the meal she felt Emma begin to relax. Whatever she was doing was apparently a social success for her. Ed felt an odd pity. Then again, it meant that Emma was putting herself through something she found a trial for her sake. It filled her with delicious warmth.
Emma’s hands were busy with fork and knife, so Ed contented herself with squeezing her thigh under the table. Emma’s eyes widened, and she stared hard at her plate, face turning brilliantly red.
“Auggie, you do the clean up.”
“I have a guest.”
“Wheel of chores.” He pointed to the tattered cardboard, still pinned to the message board as it had been since grade school.
“How old are you?”
“The wheel is law.”
“I don’t mind,” Emma said, looking at her. “I’ll help you.”
“At last,” her mother said, “a good child.”
Emma washed, scrubbing like a machine.
“I think these pots are cleaner than they were even before the cooking started.” Ed held one up to the light, sticking her tongue out at her own distorted reflection. “I bet your kitchen is spotless.”
“Diligent cleaning with every use extends the life of kitchen tools, and is healthier overall in the…”
She trailed off.
“That isn’t a good answer, is it?”
“It sounds a little like an instruction manual.”
“It’s not normal. I think I said the wrong things sometimes, at dinner. I practiced answering before I came. I have to practice more.”
“I was gonna ask.” She smiled. “Your family dinners must have been something else.”
“I didn’t. Have them.”
“Were you an orphan or something.”
Her nod was small.
“Never met anyone who grew up in an orphanage. It sounds lonely.”
“I don’t mind being alone. Being with you is better. Lots of other people is hard.”
“How many is lots?” She watched Emma turn red, trying to be tactful. “Five, huh?”
“No, it was fine! Dinner was…I’ll work harder.”
“Never mind, Em. Once you get to know them you won’t be so nervous.” She watched Emma frown over a spot on a pan. “Thank you. For trying so hard to make a good impression on my dorky family.” She waved at the table.
“Oh, I like your family. I liked watching you and them. You know each other so well.”
“Oh god, don’t tell him. His head won’t fit through the door!”
“So, this sounds childish but, do you want to see my room?”
She examined everything, gingerly exploring the layers of Ed’s life. She found herself wanting to explain. She wasn’t nervous exactly. It was just that she was suddenly aware of how silly panda socks and blue wigs were when you brought your lover home.
Emma listened to her stories with care. When she came to a sketchbook she looked for permission, then hitched herself up on the bed. The pages were flipped slowly. She’d been going through a decadent period in that sketchbook, and her girlfriend of the time had been more than willing to pose.
“It’s like magic.”
“It’s just drawing.”
“Yes,” she agreed. Ed smiled and flopped back on her bed. Emma took it as invitation and stretched out beside her, finishing her examination of the book like that.
“Do you still draw?” she asked, laying it safely on a shelf.
“When something is beautiful enough to try.” Ed turned to kiss her. The ribbon shirt had a deep scoop neck. She traced it with her finger, feeling the shiver of response.
“Ed.” She touched her lips. “I thought Ed was only a man’s name.”
“It’s what people call me.”
“What’s your real name?”
“Nope. Not telling. One day no one will know.”
“It must be a terrible name.”
“I think my parents were into the wine. All of us. Suzette, August, and me.”
“Suzette, August, and Ed.”
She looked around the crowded room. “I like your room. Your house. Your family. I understand why you’re you.” She kissed her with great enthusiasm, then nestled close.
The autumn evening settled around them, quiet and restful. Maybe Suzie’s look was well-earned. From the outside Emma was strange and awkward. She wasn’t going to be challenging any mountains or winning a marathon. Not without someone telling her it was okay first. But there was something tugging away at her, pulling her into new places. So she explored the world like a mouse would. There was nothing wrong with that.
I think this might be love.
It was her last thought before she fell asleep.
Emma’s panicked struggle to stand pulled her awake. She covered her head, annoyed that her warm, Emma-filled world was being disrupted.
The light of the tablet pulsed in a vaguely anxious way.
“What’s wrong, Em?”
“It’s late.” She sounded dumbfounded. “It’s so late. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I didn’t mean it.”
“Food coma got you?” She stretched lazily.
Emma looked at her, the confusion and fear naked in the blue-white light.
“Oh fuck. Your curfew.”
“Where is the train station? Is it close?”
“I’ll take you home.”
“I don’t mind. I bet I can get you home faster.”
“Okay. Okay. We can go fast, right? We have to go fast.”
Her arms were like iron, the whole way. Even over the sound of the bike she heard alerts going off. With each one Emma’s body would twitch, and her fingers would grow tighter. Ed barely stopped before she was scrambling down, racing to the lobby of her building. The bright security lights flickered on, washing her colour away. She tapped frantically at her tablet, until the blinking light vanished.
Her shoulders sagged. She backed up against the wall, and sank down, hugging her knees.
Emma didn’t look up when the doors opened, rocking back and forth, eyes moving over the floor. Ed sat beside her carefully. The sounds she made…She was whimpering with a soft, agonised sound, broken up by numbers.
She was trying to count. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, two two three, three two three…They kept getting lost among each other. Ed looked at the floor. The tiles, maybe.
Ed brushed her hand over her hair. After about ten minutes the security light clicked off. Ed waved her hand to reactivate it.
Her counting slowed. The numbers became smooth and flawless. The wire-tight tension began to melt away.
“Did we make it?” Her voice was loud, abrupt.
Emma nodded. She tried to laugh, and it sounded just as out-of-place.
“You have…anxiety? Panic and that?”
Emma looked at her. “You don’t have to count, do you?”
“Not…no. It’s all right. I mean, no one is normal, are they?”
“That’s what normal means, though.”
“Technically correct, sure.” She smiled. “I just mean that everyone has weird things about themselves.”
“You came all this way and sat here. Thank you.”
“I didn’t mind. It was time with you. I like it.”
“Me too. It’s the best time in my life.”
Ed kissed her and helped her stand, and brushed the wrinkles out of her jacket. “I’ll see you on baking night?”
Emma nodded, relief making her eyes bright. They kissed goodnight. Ed watched her climb the stairs, and waited on her bike, shivering in the icy autumn wind, until the light came on, and Emma waved goodbye.