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by Julia Watts
Leaving home was the best decision Chrys Pickett ever made. She lost her rural accent, got a PhD and made something of herself, promising she’d never go back to her roots. But when your Nanny needs you and your heart has been smashed to pieces, promises are easily dismissed.
The loud, affectionate family welcome and simple Appalachian life—cookouts and church, chickens and dogs in the yard—are just what Chrys needs. Family is what matters. She doesn’t mind caring for Nanny…just for the summer.
What she doesn’t expect are unsettling family secrets—and being hit between the eyes with an intense attraction to Nanny’s physical therapist.
Hilarious and poignant new love story by Lambda Literary Award winner Julia Watts.
GCLS Goldie Awards
Hypnotizing Chickens — Finalist, Lesbian Dramatic/General Fiction.
The Lesbian Review
This story is as warm and inviting as a good friend with a hot cup of coffee on a cold day. The author is from the south and the perfect dialogue draws the reader from wherever they live down into the southern town of Piney Creek, located in a "holler off a dirt road." I loved that this story shows the main character coming home to rest her heart and "put up" with her backwoods family, only to find that it is her family that helps her heal and grow.
Lesbian Reading Room
Full of observational humor, insight into the simple Appalachian life and a loving portrayal of a southern family, warts and all, Ms Watts has produced an entertaining read.
Lambda Literary Review
The story is told with wit and wisdom... As Chrys and Dee try to figure out their individual paths and to discover whether or not they have a future together, they gradually help each other realize what they each want in their lives... A story with a much deeper meaning and message, with just enough humorous winks and nods to tickle your funny bone.
More Praise for Julia Watts!
Lambda Literary Awards: Julia Watts — Winner
MJ's Bookshelf: Her humor and characterization together with her understanding and insightful depiction of life in the Southland allow us to laugh at life's ironies.
Forty. Chrys looked around at the students in the classroom and realized she was now twice as old as many of them. Even though forty wasn’t approaching the geriatric, it did feel like it should be a mature age—a time by which a gal should have some accomplishments under her belt (she had a few) and a pretty clear vision of where her life was going (she had no idea). There was no arguing that at forty, one was a grownup, and standing in front of a roomful of bored, restless teens and twenty-somethings made her feel like she was looking through the window of a hospital nursery. They were babies. They had just grown up enough to trade their diapers for blue jeans and their pacifiers for cell phones.
Teaching English composition wasn’t her preferred way of spending her birthday evening, but Meredith had promised to take her out for a late supper and cocktails once class was over. She let the thought of a dirty martini in a chilled glass fortify her as she turned and wrote the word Narrative on the dry-erase board. “Now since you’ve all had the chance to read Chapter Fourteen—”
“What page is that on?” This was from Brittany in the front row (there were five Brittanys in the class), the blond one who always wore low-cut tops that revealed the tattooed name Cody (Husband? Boyfriend? Son?) on her right breast.
“Let me check.” Chrys grabbed the textbook off her desk. She had noticed that many students expected her to know page numbers even when she wasn’t looking at the textbook, as though being an English teacher meant she was a walking table of contents. “It starts on page two thirty-six,” she said, then turned back to the board to write, A narrative tells a story by relating a sequence of events.
She turned around from the board to find herself face-to-face with another Brittany, the brown-haired, big-boned one who always seemed to be wearing the same Kenny Chesney T-shirt. “My sister just texted me,” Brittany Two said, “and she’s watching my baby, but now she has to take her dog to the vet on accounta something he ate.” She sounded panicky, but it was the same kind of panicky as when she forgot a pen or a paperclip. Panicky seemed to be her default setting. “If I was to leave now, would I miss anything?”
No, Chrys was tempted to say, we’d halt the class immediately and spend our remaining time praying for your sister’s dog’s recovery. “Email me, and I’ll let you know what you missed,” she said instead. “I’m kind of busy lecturing right now.”
After Brittany Two’s departure, Chrys said, “Now what are some of the elements of narrative—the things we have to have if we’re going to write a story?”
“Plot, character, setting, theme,” offered Liz from the third row. Liz was in her early thirties, and like many of Chrys’s brightest students, was a young mother who had decided to go back to college once her kids reached school age.
“Good,” Chrys said, writing the terms on the board. “And of course, a narrative can be fiction or non-fiction—”
Music suddenly blared—the chorus of a pop song celebrating the joys of binge drinking—and it took longer than it probably should have for Chrys to identify it as a ring tone. “Folks,” she said, “can we please keep the phones turned off during class?”
Incredibly, the offending party, a jocky-looking guy who owed her two papers, took the call. “Hey,” he said, oblivious to all but the person on the other end of the phone. “Not much, just sitting in class.”
Six years ago, Chrys had taught a different breed of student at a different breed of school. Conscientious and hard-working, most of them had arrived at college with above-average test scores and a few AP credits. Not all of them were brilliant, of course, but overall they tended to be motivated kids who really flung themselves into the college experience, and working with them Chrys often felt that she learned just as much as she taught.
But then she had gone and done the one thing that always changes everything. She had fallen in love.
Back at Western Carolina State, where Chrys had gotten her first teaching job a decade ago, her work life had been radically different. WCS was in a quaint little town in the mountains. It was a lovely campus with red brick buildings and old trees, and the kids, many of whom came from those mountains with big college dreams, reminded her of herself at their age. The regional university vibe of the school itself was reminiscent of Murray State in Kentucky where Chrys had done her own undergraduate work, so she had felt comfortable there instantly. It didn’t hurt that the members of the English department, many of whom were nearing retirement age, treated her like a child prodigy for being a newly minted PhD. When her dissertation on lesbian writers on the Left Bank was published as a book, they threw her a party with cake and ice cream.
Though Chrys had been happy during the work week at the university, she often found herself growing restless on the weekends, so she’d drive to Asheville, the nearest city, to wander the bookstores and funky shops. One Saturday while browsing the lesbian fiction section in Asheville’s lesbian-owned-but-not-wholly-lesbian bookstore, she found herself standing beside a tall, athletic-looking blond woman. The woman picked up a copy of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, and Chrys heard herself saying, “That’s a fabulous book.”
The woman’s smile revealed straight white teeth and dimples. “That’s what everybody says. I can’t believe I haven’t read it. They’re going to take my lesbian card away.”
Chrys wasn’t exactly closeted at work, but she wasn’t announcing her sexuality from the rooftops either. It was refreshing to hear someone drop being a dyke as an opening conversational gambit. The conversation continued, first over coffee at the bookstore café, then over dinner at a restaurant way out of Chrys’s price range that served small mounds of artfully drizzled food on square white plates, then later on the high thread-count sheets in Meredith’s room in the Grove Park Inn after sex that was so much better than Chrys’s past experiences that it seemed like something else entirely. Chrys was a little shocked at herself for going to bed with a woman on the first date—and an impromptu first date at that. But she had been single for a long time. And she was smitten.
Meredith, it turned out, was a plastic surgeon with a practice at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. Chrys would’ve ordinarily been turned off by a profession that catered to vanity in an appearance-obsessed culture, but Meredith had explained to her how she had been literally “bitten by” her occupation. As a small child, she had been severely bitten on the face by a neighbor’s dog. She would’ve been permanently disfigured had it not been for the excellent work of a skilled plastic surgeon. Sure, she said, in her profession there was no shortage of Botox and boob jobs and butt lifts, but there was fulfilling work, too: facial reconstruction for victims of house fires and car crashes, new breasts for cancer survivors. Chrys began to feel that she’d judged a whole profession too harshly.
Fortunately, Chrys hadn’t been the only one who’d been smitten. Their conversation continued by phone and email and in person once a month when they’d reconnect in Asheville. They went on for a year like this before Meredith started talking about them living together.
Of course, there was no way Meredith could give up a successful practice, and so, after six months of agonizing, Chrys decided to give up a job she loved for the woman she loved. She moved to Knoxville.
Chrys had only had one other live-in lover, with whom she’d shared a crappy one-bedroom apartment when she was working on her master’s degree at the University of Kentucky. Her living situation with Meredith was a far cry from the student slum days. Meredith owned a four-bedroom faux chateau, complete with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, in an upscale Knoxville subdivision called Whittington Manor (all the frou-frou subdivisions in the area seemed to have “-ington” names). A Guatemalan maid was in charge of cleaning the house, and her husband did the mowing, blowing, and landscaping. It took several months for Chrys to feel like a resident in the house instead of one of the staff.
It took Chrys a full year to find a new job, and she wouldn’t have found it without a tip from one of Meredith’s acquaintances. A nurse who’d been a colleague of Meredith’s had taken a teaching job at Hill College and let Meredith know that one of the English faculty members there was retiring. Thanks to the grapevine, Chrys had found herself a gig teaching five sections of freshman comp (plus tutoring four hours a week in the Writing Center) to students pursuing careers as nurses, paralegals, x-ray technicians, and office managers. Her heady days of teaching English majors were gone, but still, she didn’t feel she could complain too much. In the past her love life had always taken a backseat to her academic life; it balanced the scales to shift the weight to the other side…especially for a lover as entrancing as Meredith.
Tonight, as her class’s nine thirty end time drew nearer, Chrys felt as restless as her students looked. She put them in groups for a while to discuss an essay they had allegedly read. But when she listened in on the discussions, the topics seemed to be what the students were going to eat or drink when they got out of class, what they had done last weekend, and what they were going to do this weekend. By ten after nine, Chrys decided that there was zero chance of any further education occurring and dismissed class.
She was a little early for her meeting time at the Brasserie (or the “brassiere,” as they always called it in private), but when she got there, Meredith was already there, waiting at the door, wearing a tailored suit and silk blouse combination that managed to look both professional and sexy. She kissed Chrys’s cheek and said, “I see you survived your class.”
“Only a little worse for wear,” Chrys said. “Nothing a drink won’t fix.”
“Well, shall we?” Meredith held open the door.
Once they were inside, the fawning commenced. The maitre d’, who was young enough to be a student at the university, said, “Dr. Padgett, what a pleasure to see you this evening! We have your special table ready for you.”
One of the things Chrys had to get used to in the early days of their relationship was the constant ass-kissing that came with Meredith being a doctor. At first, probably pettily, Chrys had been a little jealous. After all, she had a doctorate, too, and people didn’t fall all over themselves ingratiating themselves with her. But the logic behind the ass-kissing was obvious: M.D.s had way more spending power than PhDs in English. And then, too, if you were on a plane and a message came over the speaker saying, “Is there a doctor on board?” there was no doubt what kind of doctor they were asking for. They sure as hell weren’t looking for somebody in first class who could analyze the homoerotic imagery in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Once they were seated at their cozy, white-clothed table, Meredith ordered a bottle of champagne and the mussels appetizer that was Chrys’s favorite. After the champagne cork popped, Chrys looked around the dimly lit restaurant with its black and white photos of Parisian life. “This is a far cry from the birthdays of my childhood. It was always hot dogs followed by a cake straight out of a Betty Crocker box.”
Meredith smiled. “For me it was usually a party with a bakery cake and a clown making balloon animals or something.”
It figured. Chrys had grown up a country girl while Meredith was solidly suburban. “How traumatic.”
“Not really.” Meredith smiled. “I don’t share your fear of clowns.”
“Which is lucky.” Chrys paused for a sip of champagne. “Because, you know, they can smell fear.”
Her entree was a buttery filet of sole surrounded by tender-crisp haricots verts. It was funny to compare these green beans with the ones she’d grown up eating back in Kentucky. Nanny would string the beans in the morning and leave them simmering on the stove for hours with a huge slab of bacon. Both Nanny’s beans and the Frenchified version in front of her were delicious, but it was hard to think of them as the same vegetable.
Over the meal, Chrys and Meredith chatted about the usual things—Meredith’s high-maintenance and sometimes crazy patients, Chrys’s high-maintenance and sometimes crazy students, whether or not the new movie they wanted to see would make it to Knoxville’s single art-house cinema this weekend.
When dessert arrived, Chrys closed her eyes to better experience her first spoonful of chocolate mousse. “I could fill a bathtub with this stuff and jump in,” she said.
“Order a second if you like,” Meredith said. “It’s your birthday.”
“But then my ass would be so wide I wouldn’t fit in a bathtub.”
“Oh, I don’t know. We’ve got a pretty big bathtub.”
It was true. The tub in the master bath was a huge, oval jacuzzi in which they could both sit comfortably and soak up to their shoulders.
“Listen,” Meredith said, “I know you said no gifts, but I did get you a little something.”
“I promise it’s just little.” Meredith rummaged through her bag.
The first three years of their relationship Meredith had showered Chrys with expensive jewelry—diamond stud earrings from Tiffany, a string of Mikimoto pearls. She had loved them, of course, but she was really more of a funky art-fair jewelry kind of girl. And besides, all the small gift boxes left at her spot on the dinner table or on her pillow had started to make her feel like a mobster’s mistress. “You’d better not have the Hope Diamond in there,” Chrys said as Meredith continued to search the compartments in her bag.
“Here it is,” she said finally and passed Chrys a flat, square box wrapped in purple tissue paper.
Chrys tore into it. “Oh, the Adele CD! Perfect. Thank you.”
“Because I’ve learned to respect your frugality, I shopped at Target instead of Tiffany.”
Chrys reached across the table and squeezed Meredith’s hand. “And I couldn’t be happier.”
Back at the house, tipsy from the champagne, Chrys started shedding components of what she called her “teacher drag” as soon as she got in the door. She stepped out of her flats in the foyer and unbuttoned her blouse as she climbed the curving stairs to the bedroom. Soon she was standing in front of Meredith in nothing but her diamond earrings, string of pearls, and black lace bra and panties. “So give me your professional opinion,” she said. “Do I look forty?”
“You look like a goddess,” Meredith said. “And goddesses are ageless. Besides, you’re not allowed to obsess over your age since I’m a decade older than you.”
“You don’t look it,” Chrys said. It was true. Though Meredith had never indulged in the surgical vanity of her patients, she looked much younger than her age. Her face, with its enviable bone structure and strong jawline, was wrinkle-free except for smile lines, and her body was toned from hours of running and tennis. Sometimes, especially when she was in her shorts and T-shirt, her short blond hair tousled after a run, she could almost pass for a teenaged tomboy.
“You’re too kind.” Meredith leaned in toward Chrys.
Chrys melted into Meredith’s kiss and let herself be pushed back onto the bed. Chrys’s other live-in lover—almost twenty years ago—had been an enthusiastic neophyte lesbian. They had rolled all over each other like puppies, joyful but lacking finesse.
No one could accuse Meredith of lacking finesse. Maybe it was the same skill that served her well as a surgeon. Her hands were sure and practiced, and she always knew just where to touch, how much pressure to apply, when to speed up, when to slow down. Tonight, with her body loose from champagne, Chrys felt Meredith slide her panties down, and within seconds she came, with three short gasps punctuated by a bark of laughter. “Happy birthday to me,” she said.
Meredith kissed her forehead. “Happy birthday to you.”
Chrys sat up on one elbow and ran her fingers through Meredith’s short blond hair. “And now it’s your turn.”
Meredith grinned. “It’s not my birthday.”
Chrys pressed against her. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”
“I know exactly what you mean, but I’m going to have to take a rain check. It’s after midnight, and I have to be up at six. And if you recall, champagne makes you frisky, but it makes me sleepy.”
Chrys recalled no such thing—in fact, their champagne-fueled New Year’s Eve celebrations were downright orgiastic—but she nodded anyway. Tired was tired, after all, and Meredith’s job did put her under a lot of physical and mental strain. It had been nice of Meredith to wine her and dine her at the end of a long work day when she was no doubt exhausted.
But somehow as Chrys watched Meredith change into an old pair of sweatpants and a Lady Vols T-shirt, she felt a pinprick of anxiety that threatened to deflate her happy mood. Now their evening together took on the qualities of something Meredith felt obligated to do—no matter how tired she was and no matter how much tireder a late night was going to make her—because it was Chrys’s birthday. She was probably being silly, but she couldn’t help but feel that Meredith had been showing her a good time without having a good time herself.
The game was called Five More Papers. Chrys played it sitting at her desk during her office hours. The game consisted of making a series of deals with herself. If she graded five more papers, then she could log onto Facebook and mess around for ten minutes. After the ten minutes on Facebook, if she graded five more papers, then she could eat a Hershey’s kiss. Five more papers after that would earn her one video on YouTube.
It wasn’t a very fun game, but it was psychologically necessary. With the influx of papers from her sections of composition, she constantly needed to be grading. And yet if she surveyed the stack of papers on her desk and told herself she had to grade all of them, she would find the nearest office with a window so she could jump out of it. If she deceived herself into a sense of accomplishment after each small stack of five, though, eventually all the papers would get graded.
She had always had a knack for self-deception anyway. Hell, until her senior year of college, she had convinced herself that she was straight.
What surprised her most about being a writing teacher was that while she might have been able to help some of her students become better writers, it seemed to come at the cost of making her a worse one. She had always been a good academic writer, never earning anything other than As on her papers as an undergrad and grad student. When she was in the PhD program at Vanderbilt, she got a couple of papers accepted at conferences, and then later there was the publication of her dissertation by a small university press. But since she spent so much time reading freshman-level writing, she found freshman-level mistakes creeping into her own work—using their when she meant there or whose when she meant who’s. It was almost as if the freshmen gained their writing ability by draining her of hers. They were grammar succubi.
Today she won the biggest prize in the game of Five More Papers. It came when Chrys timed the end of the last stack of five to coincide with the end of her office hours. Going home was the ultimate reward.
When Chrys pulled her bedraggled old Toyota into the driveway, she was surprised that Meredith’s gold Lexus was already there. Meredith didn’t usually make it home until six at the earliest.
Meredith was sitting on the couch in the living room. She had changed out of her work clothes and into track shorts and a freebie T-shirt from one of the many marathons she’d run. She wasn’t crying, but her eyes were puffy as though she had been.
“What’s wrong?” Chrys asked. Her usually dormant Appalachian morbidity kicked in, and she ran a mental catalog of loved ones who could’ve died. Meredith’s grammy was most likely, but it could’ve been Meredith’s Aunt Charlotte, too. “Is somebody sick?”
“Nobody’s sick,” Meredith said. “I came home early so we could talk.”
Any momentary sense of relief evaporated. “Uh…is this a ‘we need to talk’ kind of talk?”
Meredith stopped short of smiling. “I guess it is.”
Fear tightened Chrys’s stomach. “Is this a ‘you’d better sit down’ kind of talk?”
Chrys sank into the nearest chair. “Okay, tell me.”
Meredith rubbed her face for a moment, then said, “Okay. Chrys, you’re one of the most incredible women I’ve ever met, and this has nothing to do with anything you’ve said or done. But the heart follows its own path—”
She couldn’t stand it. “Just fucking tell me.”
“You’re right. Nothing I can say is going to make this easier. I’ve met someone else. Her name is Audrey, and she’s a nurse in a practice that’s on the same floor as mine.”
The shock that rolled through her was probably silly. Meredith had been involved with another woman when she started dating Chrys. She had left the other woman for Chrys, and now she was leaving Chrys for yet another woman. She shouldn’t be shocked, but she was. “Is she younger than I am?”
Meredith shook her head. “That’s neither here nor there. She’s an intelligent, vivacious—”
“Just humor me and answer the question.”
“She’s twenty-seven, but—”
“Jesus Christ, Meredith! You could be her mother!”
Meredith’s gaze turned icy. “Now that’s a low blow.”
“It’s not a low blow. It’s a factual statement. You’re twenty-three years older than she is! And while we’re dealing with facts here, let’s see…you’re a cosmetic surgeon, and as you get progressively older, your girlfriends get progressively younger. You’re the lesbian Dorian Gray!”
“Look, there’s no reason for us to say things we don’t mean—”
Hot tears spilled onto Chrys’s cheeks. “You think I don’t mean this? That I’m not entitled to be pissed off? I gave up a tenure-track university job to come here and teach at the McDonald’s of higher education.”
Meredith held out her hands as if in supplication. “I know you’ve made sacrifices, and I’m certainly willing to help you—”
“I don’t want your money. I never did.” Chrys would be lying if she said she hadn’t enjoyed some of the luxuries of life with Meredith—the European summer vacations, the Caribbean winter ones—but she’d always been in it for love, not money, and she got pretty sick of the dykes who looked at her like she was some kind of gold digger. “What I want is for you to tell me this. Last night, did you know you’d be having this conversation with me today?”
Meredith’s eyes were wet. “Yes.”
“Then why did you wait to tell me?”
“Well, Jesus, I figured there’s a hot place in hell for people who break up with their girlfriends on their fortieth birthday.”
“But waiting till the day after is okay?” Chrys couldn’t sit anymore. She had to get up and pace, to do something to fight off the feeling that she was about to fly into bits. “So you take the old girl out to dinner first, feed her and fuck her for old times’ sake.”
“Stop it, Chrys.”
But she couldn’t stop. “Of course you can’t let her fuck you back because that would be too intimate, wouldn’t it? To open yourself up to her when you know what you’re going to do to her the next day.”
Meredith got up and put her hands on Chrys’s shoulders. “It wasn’t like that,” she said, her voice breaking. “I never meant—”
“Don’t even try,” Chrys said, shrugging away from Meredith’s touch. “Nothing you can say will be the right thing.”
* * *
You couldn’t accuse Meredith of poor planning. She had arranged to be out of town all weekend (probably with her nearly jailbait girlfriend) so Chrys could have the time to “process and plan.” She figured that in Meredith-speak, process meant crying and plan meant “figure out where you’re going to live and how soon you can get the fuck out of my house.”
Right now, four hours after the big showdown, Chrys was processing. Or at least that was what she was doing if processing meant curling in a fetal ball on the guest bed, sobbing and staining the pillows with tears and snot. Her first instinct had been to crawl into her bed, but she couldn’t bear to be in the bed she’d shared with Meredith. And so she ended up in one of the gigantic house’s three guest bedrooms, fitting since Meredith’s treatment of her showed that she’d never been considered more than a guest in this house anyway. And now she was a guest who was being asked to leave.
Eventually the sunlight faded, but Chrys couldn’t be bothered to turn on the lamp. The rational side of her knew she should get up and drink a glass of water; this much crying was dehydrating. But she didn’t really care enough to move. She imagined herself as a dehydrated corpse forgotten in the guest bedroom while Meredith and the new girl started their life together. It would be lesbian Southern gothic.
When the phone rang, her first delusional thought was that it was Meredith saying it had all been a mistake. But the screen showed Aaron’s number. Other than Meredith, there were only three people in the world whose calls Chrys answered no matter what: her mother, her grandmother, and Aaron.
Aaron was the one close friend Chrys had made since moving to Knoxville. There were pleasant acquaintances, mostly couples in Meredith’s circle of friends. Now, Chrys supposed, the new girl would be socializing with these women. But Aaron was Chrys’s and Chrys’s alone.
The first time she met Aaron, she took off all her clothes and let him touch her all over. This was the truth, and it was also the source of a running joke between the two of them. Aaron was a massage therapist at a local spa, and Chrys met him when Meredith had bought her a spa gift certificate she hadn’t been sure what to do with. A mud bath seemed disgusting, and a chemical peel sounded painful, so she had settled on a massage. As she waited in her spa-issued fluffy robe, she had wondered if she’d made a mistake in agreeing to strip naked and be touched by a stranger. What if the masseuse was the kind of hyper-masculine straight guy she found off-putting? Or what if it was a sexy dyke who made her all self-conscious and giggly?
Chrys couldn’t have been more relieved to see that her massage therapist was a whippet-thin, mocha-complexioned, obviously gay man.
During the massage, Aaron let it slip that he had become a massage therapist once it became clear that his bachelor’s degree in theater left him unsuited for any type of stable employment. Chrys had asked him his opinion of Tony Kushner, and soon the two of them were off and running on a fascinating conversation about gay theatre even as Aaron kneaded Chrys’s buttocks. When he handed her his card at the end of the session, he said, “I’d be very happy if you’d come back for another massage, but I’d be even happier if you’d call me to have lunch or coffee. I could get fired for saying that to a cute guy client, but I figure I’m safe with you.”
“And vice versa,” Chrys had said.
Many lunches and gallons of coffee had followed, along with occasional movie dates and “girls’ nights out.” They had a standing date to attend Club XYZ’s Night of a Thousand Dollies, an annual charity fundraiser in which local drag queens donned their best (and sometimes worst) Dolly Parton drag.
Chrys stared at Aaron’s number on the screen. She didn’t feel like talking, but Aaron was too good a friend to ignore. When she said hello, her voice sounded rusty and nasal.
“Um…I’m calling for Chrys?”
“You got her, you dizzy dame.”
“I did? Christ on a rope, honeybun, you sound like shit.”
“Well, there’s a good reason for it. Meredith dumped me.”
“Don’t make me say it again.” But his shocked tone was gratifying.
“I’m sorry. It’s just…I run through boyfriends like clean pairs of socks, but you and Meredith have been together—what, five years?”
“Six. And apparently my warranty ran out and I’ve been traded for a newer model.”
“Oh, hon, I’m so sorry. Where are you now?”
“In the guest bedroom in the fetal position.”
“Well, grab your toothbrush and some jammies and get your booty over here. You don’t need to be hanging around the scene of the crime.”
* * *
Aaron’s apartment was on the second floor of a ramshackle Victorian house in a neighborhood that had undergone Step One of the gentrification process: the gays had moved in. Chrys climbed the outside staircase which was lined with potted herbs and tomato plants. She wiped her eyes and nose before she knocked, but she knew there was no point in doing anything else to improve her appearance. She was an ugly crier, and she’d been crying for hours.
Aaron opened the door and opened his arms. Chrys fell into his slim but muscular frame and sobbed. He kissed the top her head and crooned “I know, I know” the way her mom used to. “Why don’t we at least move to the couch?” he said. “We might as well cry in comfort.”
On the purple crushed velvet sofa (Aaron had rescued it from the junkyard and reupholstered it himself), Chrys lay with her head in her friend’s lap. Between sobs, she managed to choke out the story of the previous twenty-four hours.
“So let me get this straight,” he said, stroking her hair. “She took you out for a fancy dinner with champagne and everything. Did she buy you a present?”
“The Adele CD.”
“How thoughtful of her to provide a soundtrack for the breakup. Do you think she meant to be sadistic there?”
She hadn’t thought about it until Aaron said so, but every song on the Adele album was about breaking up or trying—often unsuccessfully—to move on after breaking up. Would Meredith have been that intentionally cruel? “You know, I honestly don’t think she did. I’d said I wanted the album, and I figure she just picked it up at Target along with the toothpaste and never really thought about it. Plus, you don’t want to buy an expensive gift for the girl you’re going to dump the next day.”
“Well, it does suck to turn forty and to turn single in the same twenty-four-hour period,” Aaron said.
“It rates pretty high on the suck-o-meter,” Chrys said.
“Let me be a mama for a minute, honeybun. When was the last time you had something to eat or drink?”
“I don’t remember. Around one, I guess.” It seemed like a decade ago when she’d eaten a cheese and tomato sandwich at her desk while grading papers, thinking it was just an ordinary day.
“Okay, sit up. The first thing we’re going to do is get you a big glass of water. Then I prescribe a pizza and half a bottle of red wine.”
Chrys and Aaron had shared a pizza and a bottle of wine numerous times on this very couch, but right now she couldn’t imagine ingesting food. Her throat and stomach felt like she’d swallowed concrete. “I don’t think I can eat anything.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Aaron said. “You’re one of those people who stops eating when she’s upset. As opposed to me…get me upset and I’ll eat a whole box of Little Debbies including the cardboard.”
“And not gain an ounce,” Chrys said. She always marveled at Aaron’s inability to gain weight and wished it was one she shared.
“Listen, I’m going to order the pizza, and then I’m going to pour enough wine down you that you won’t be able to resist it when it gets here.”
Halfway through their second glass, Chrys said, “You know what the worst part is? I changed my life to be with her, and now that she doesn’t want me anymore, I can’t change it back.”
Aaron squeezed her hand. “Well, maybe you can change it forward.”
Chrys surprised herself with a little snort of laughter. “What the hell does that even mean?”
Aaron laughed, too. “I have no idea. I guess I’m being nurturing, and it’s making me get all Oprah on your ass.”
The wine did relax her enough that she was able to manage a slice of pizza (though she was usually a three-slice kind of girl).
“The first thing you’ve got to do,” Aaron said, helping himself to a fourth slice, “is get out of that mausoleum of a McMansion.”
“I know, right?” Chrys let Aaron refill her glass. “But I have to figure out somewhere to go.” The idea of apartment hunting in her emotional state was overwhelming, but she also couldn’t bear the thought of spending another night in what she was already thinking of as “that house.”
“Well, I know we’re kind of old to do the roommates thing, but I do have an extra bedroom,” Aaron said. “You’re welcome to crash here for a month or two while you figure things out.”
The kindness of Aaron’s offer made the tears start again. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly impose on you like that…just moving in here like Blanche DuBois.”
“Damn it, I’m Blanche. If we’re doing that play, you’re stuck being Stella. Really, though, honeybun, it’d be no trouble. And if it makes you feel better you can chip in on rent, groceries, and booze. You can think of this place as your own personal flophouse.”
Chrys wiped her tears. “Okay. But just for a little while, okay?”
“Okay. Shall I show you to your room?”
The guest bedroom was small, just big enough for a double bed, a dresser, and a little walking space between them. A poster for a university production of Fences in which Aaron had starred hung on the wall. A handmade quilt was on the bed, along with a dozing Celie, Aaron’s long-lived calico cat.
“Now Miss Celie thinks of this room as hers,” Aaron said, “so she may be a little pissy about sharing her bed at first.”
“I’m sure we’ll get along fine,” Chrys said. She liked cats and had owned one back in North Carolina, a tortoiseshell named Djuna who eventually became “Junie.” But Meredith was allergic, and so Chrys had given Junie to a friend who still emailed her pictures from time to time. Chrys added Junie to the growing list of Things She Had Given Up to Be With Meredith.
Chrys changed into the T-shirt and shorts Aaron had loaned her and crawled under the quilt beside Celie. She must have used up her daily allotment of tears because none would come, though she felt no less sad than when she’d been sobbing. Sleep wouldn’t come either. She lay there, stroking Celie, wondering if she was destined to stay awake all night feeling this empty ache.
But then there was a soft knock at the door and Aaron whispering, “You want some company?”
They curled up together like kittens in the same litter, and finally Chrys slept.