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by Renee J. Lukas
Sydney Gray worries. In fact, she is excellent at it. So when she loses her house, job and credit score she ought to have been prepared. But she never imagined it could all happen at once—or that she’d be single too.
Out of the lesbian dating scene for three presidents, Sydney is wary of Ellie Hundersson from the start. Too interesting, too lovely and too…everything. Determined to fail, Sydney discovers Ellie does have big secrets, giving her the perfect excuse to do what she does best: run.
Filled with foibles of modern lesbian life, Renée J. Lukas’s debut romance is a love story about getting it all wrong on the way to finding what feels right.
Recently I was diagnosed with chronic anxiety disorder. So I don’t just worry; I worry chronically. Like everything I do, I try to give it a hundred percent. And once again, I’ve gone the extra mile.
It’s no surprise when you come from a family of neurotics who, before you board a plane, don’t wish you a safe trip but instead smile and wave and say, “Call us if you make it!”
But you get used to it, and that becomes your normal. Like happiness. For some people, it’s an everyday feeling that is just part of their experience, like blow-drying their hair a certain way. For others like me, it’s a fleeting, elusive thing that I might catch for a few moments a day—like a lightning bug in my hands.
This would not be a day for lightning bugs. Today I sat in a strange apartment and watched streaks of rain make different shapes down the window. All at once it hit me—I had lost everything in one month—my job, my relationship of twelve years, my house, my credit score, everything. Again, I gave it a hundred percent.
“I have great dishes from IKEA, so we’ll use mine.” Debra’s voice chirped in the other room, trying to make small talk to keep me from crashing into a sea of despair. She was my best friend who invited me to come live with her after my foreclosure. She was always breaking up with her boyfriend, Kurt, and now that they were on a long break, it seemed like a good time to stay with her. Aside from his guitar in the corner, the bedroom was all set up for me. But it was filled with boxes from a life I didn’t recognize—my own.
At forty, I got laid off from my job, declared bankruptcy and was single for the first time since three presidents ago. I’d been “off the market” for so long, I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. And magazines like Cosmo and Glamour weren’t going to help me, either, because they were all about pleasing a man—how to ask him out, how to tell if he’s cheating and how to do that thing he won’t tell you that he really wants you to do in bed.
Debra came in. “You wanna have dinner soon?” She had dark hair and big brown eyes filled with concern.
“I’m not really hungry.”
“You have to eat,” she insisted. “First it’s ‘I’m not that hungry,’ then you’re not eating at all, then drinking too much, having blackouts under bridges, then wasting away until you’re just another statistic.”
I’d never noticed it before. Debra was as dramatic as my sister.
Why does everyone have to shield you from a bad mood? Sometimes you have to just let it crash on you. Feel the shards of glass poking you in the eyes. Feel the pain. Experience the blood and gore and darkness. Then later let the sun come out and sing Disney songs.
Debra wouldn’t understand. Someone who broke up with her boyfriend every other week couldn’t understand a breakup after twelve years—and everything that went with it. Nor could she understand losing a long-held position in a coveted industry. I’d defined myself by my job as an advertising copywriter. I took pride in every stupid toothpaste jingle or hotel billboard. And Debra Lansing, with her Gucci purses, couldn’t possibly understand the humiliation of a layoff, let alone bankruptcy.
“I’m too stubborn to waste away.” I resumed my blank stare out the window. It probably was a bit creepy.
“I know what you’re going through,” she said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Well, not everything. When I screamed at Kurt, he just ignored me. Can you believe that? All I could hear were his stupid dirty boots clomping down the stairs. Then…nothing.” Debra waved her hand dramatically. She’d always wanted to go into theater but settled for a job as a financial analyst instead. She saved her best monologues for her friends.
“Seriously? You and Kurt? You’ll take him back in a week. And please give me enough notice, okay?”
Debra stared at me strangely. “You look pale. I mean really pale.”
“I am pale.”
I wanted to be alone without anyone staring at me, checking on my “condition.” I was naturally fair-skinned, and my short hair, which used to be naturally a white-blonde typically found in a Clairol bottle, was now a shade of blonde that looked like it was never washed quite enough. I wasn’t about to look in the mirror today. All I’d think about was that I was aging faster than the picture of Dorian Gray and couldn’t afford a bottle of hair color now if I wanted it.
“Do you want to be alone?” Debra asked.
“Yeah.” My voice cracked.
“Okay,” she replied. “But it’s not good to be alone for too long. Your head starts getting messed up and crazy.”
“You need to quit watching Dateline.”
She smiled faintly and shut the door, as I inhaled the scent of Chihuahua throughout the apartment. Luckily, Rebel, her four-legged oversized rat, was on the other side of the closed door. After my cat hissed at her, they had an understanding.
I searched my thoughts, trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong. Valerie and I had been together for twelve years, and because we couldn’t be legally married in Connecticut there was nothing binding us together except our word that we’d stay committed to each other. I could have stayed angry that I was left with a mortgage that was in my name and that my financial awareness was pitiful enough to make Suze Orman scream at me in front of a live studio audience. But the bigger truth was that we’d been living a lie for a long time and denying it, washing it down with beer at places we didn’t even like—Scruggy’s Sports Bar & Grill—places where we pretended to understand the rules of baseball.
Valerie was a striking woman who carried herself like she owned the world. I was proud of her accomplishments as a top-notch prosecutor. She and I had bonded with our belief in justice for all people. But the flame had long since died, and we kept marking time with visits to theme parks, family get-togethers, new ornaments on the Christmas tree each year, anything to make us feel like everything was okay. Comfortable.
And it was comfortable. Sometimes, comfortable is not where you want to be, unless you’re talking about shoes. Doing things that scare you, that give you those butterflies in your stomach, those are reminders that you’re alive. We never talked about the elephant in the room until it was so big the roof was starting to pop off. Finally, we talked about it. When we did, we knew it was over. Breaking up something so comfortable was both frightening and exhilarating.
Dating someone again could feel similar to going skydiving and being next in line out of the hatch with nothing but sky to greet you. I wouldn’t know. I’d never been skydiving. But after more than a decade of having someone to spend holidays with, it’s very scary. You don’t know what’s out there.
My friend Penny knew. She lived online. Every other weekend we were taking her to the airport to meet someone she’d had “chemistry” with over the phone. They had all ended thus far in heartbreak—and one restraining order. So I’d gotten a glimpse of what was out there and discovered, through Penny, that online was where all the psychos hung out.
* * *
Later that night, I was tossing back a few beers with Debra when my good friend, Maddie Kimball, banged on the door. Maddie was a stocky, intense woman with a movie star face: dark curled hair and a general bitterness toward the world. She’d turned forty-nine last year, but she remained a perpetual Peter Pan, still figuring out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Most of the time she was angry at her love life and disappointed when she came back from lesbian cruises without having met the dream woman. Of course, she had very specific criteria for this dream woman—right down to chest and thigh measurements. Maddie was looking for Sophia Loren, Angelina Jolie or anyone with a butt you could set a drink on.
I suddenly realized that Debra and Maddie didn’t know each other very well.
When Debra opened the door, Maddie came right in, carrying a six-pack of imported beer. “Is everything closed in Connecticut after eight o’clock?” she asked, popping the top off one. “Maddie.” She extended her hand to Debra, who looked slightly afraid.
“Debra Lansing,” she said, shaking Maddie’s hand.
“We met at the Christmas party last year,” Maddie explained, taking a seat. Then she turned to me. “How are you holding up?” Her bright blue eyes searched my face.
“I’ll make some crab-stuffed mushrooms!” Debra excitedly ran into the kitchen where she could try out recipes she’d collected online. I knew she was thinking of this as some sort of dinner party. What she was about to witness were lesbians in their natural habitat, and with my friends, it was usually a lot more casual than what Debra probably had in mind.
“Tell me you didn’t give all her stuff to charity,” Maddie moaned.
“Most of it.”
“Shit, you could’ve made a fortune on eBay!” She took a swig of her drink and scowled in disapproval. “What is it with these women?”
“I told you. It was mutual.”
“It’s never mutual,” Maddie argued. “Somebody always does something. Look at Holly and me.”
“What happened to you?” Debra called from the kitchen.
“Oh, you know, it’s an age-old story,” Maddie said. “Girl meets younger girl doing laundry, is instantly attracted to her underwear, and old granny panties is kicked to the curb.”
“That’s an age-old story?” Debra smiled, trying to contain her amusement. “Wait a minute, back up. Her underwear?”
“The girl had those skimpy Victoria’s Secret panties that are shaped like underwear but don’t really cover anything,” Maddie explained. “Holly always said I wore granny underwear, and I do. I admit it. They’re big, white cotton briefs. I want to be comfortable. If I wear lacy, itchy underwear all day on the off-chance I’m going to get some later, I’ll just be scratching so much people will think I have a yeast infection.”
I shook my head. “That’s what’s wrong with lesbians.”
“Yeast infections?” Maddie asked.
“No, dummy. Because there’s no man, neither one of you initiates sex until it becomes just cuddling. And before you know it, you’ve cuddled so much you’re now watching House Hunters every night and no one’s touching anyone. It happened to me and Val.” Her name left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. “How about no one says her name again, okay? Let’s call her…”
“Văldemort,” Maddie declared.
We clinked bottles. It was perfect. Nicknaming her after the villain of Harry Potter gave me a strange sense of comfort.
It was true. I had seen every episode of House Hunters. It had gotten to the point where I could name the couple before they introduced them. “Oh, that’s Kevin and Barb from Minnesota. They’re moving to Austin.” I sounded like an old person making friends at the local pool.
“So,” Debra began carefully, “is it true that lesbians don’t have as much sex?”
“You’re talking about lesbian bed death,” Maddie replied as if she were a lesbian scholar. “It’s a myth.”
“I don’t know,” I sighed.
“Okay,” Maddie replied. “We’re not thinking with our chattahoochies all day, so we might have to work harder to get it going. But once it gets going, it’s hot.” I could tell she was trying to remember what sex felt like.
Debra, now with her mushrooms in the oven, sat in awe like she was looking at a fascinating museum exhibit.
The doorbell rang, and Rebel barked so hard Debra had to put her in her room. I was relieved. I didn’t want to watch her sniffing crotches all night. Dog owners never seemed to notice that.
At the door was Penny Granger. She was a wisp of a blonde, a couple of years younger than I, with long hair and an attractive face. She was a contradiction of lipstick and hiking boots, and she loved to wear T-shirts with peace symbols or messages about how to be more positive. She’d heard the news about me and Văldemort and got away from her computer long enough to come over. I was touched at the show of support.
“Hey!” she called in a slight Southern accent, after introducing herself to Debra. She gave me the hardest hug I’d ever gotten from her.
“I’m glad you came.” I smiled. Maybe being alone tonight wasn’t the best thing.
Penny handed Debra another six-pack of imported beers, which Debra examined and placed in the fridge. Debra was used to wine-drinking women at her monthly book club where they read romance novels and talked about each other’s boyfriends and husbands. Tonight would be an eye-opener for her.
“Now we have a party!” Maddie exclaimed. “We’ll get your mind off that bitch.” She touched my shoulder.
Just then everything seemed like it would be all right.
“I’d love to,” I managed to say. “But don’t be so nice or you’ll make me cry.”
“Too late for that,” Debra chimed in. “I’ll get boxes of tissues, and we can watch Terms of Endearment, Love Story, The Way We Were…”
Maddie covered Debra’s mouth. “I’m going to stop you right there, straighty. That’s not what lesbians do to forget our exes.”
“It’s what I do every time I break up with Kurt. It’s healthy to embrace your pain.”
“It’s also healthy to watch movies where the women are hotter than your ex,” Maddie explained.
“Yeah,” Penny agreed. “You got Terminator Two? The one with Linda Hamilton holding that rifle? Mmm!”
We laughed at her. Sometimes Penny seemed more suited to be a princess from an animated movie.
“What?” Penny wailed. “I mean it. She could shoot me any day.”
“Me too,” I admitted, already feeling better.
Debra stood dumbfounded in the kitchen. “Wow. That’s…cool.”
“It really works,” I said. “You should try it next time you two, you know.”
“I told you, there won’t be a next time.” Debra didn’t believe herself.
Maddie hiked up her pants like Don Knotts and took another beer out of the fridge.
“Wow,” Debra said. “You girls certainly have plenty to drink.” Her nervous giggle either came from awkwardness or judgment.
“That’s the plan,” I replied. “If the movie doesn’t help me forget, the beer will.”
Some of us laughed.
And there we were, all gathered around the TV, watching Cinderella go to the ball and find her Prince Charming. It was an odd choice for a group of lesbians. But Debra didn’t have any Terminator or Jodie Foster movies—not even old Charlie’s Angels reruns.
“This is so romantic,” Penny cooed.
“Yeah,” Debra sighed.
“It’s crap,” Maddie spat. “More Hollywood bullshit that teaches little girls to wait around for a man. What if the girl turns out to be gay?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Sometimes I’d give anything to see them make one with a Princess Charming.”
Maddie thought a second. “Yeah.”
“It’s a cartoon!” Penny hollered. “Y’all read too much into it.”
“Cartoon, music video, it’s all the same sexist crap. Why can’t Cinderella stop being a victim, tell off her bitch of a stepmother and make Charming prove he’s husband material first?” Maddie folded her arms. She really needed her own talk show.
I popped one of Debra’s crab-stuffed mushrooms into my mouth. “Damn, this is good. It’s a little bite of heaven.” I moaned a little too loudly, I guess.
“Are you having an orgasm?” Maddie asked.
“If you tried one of my mushrooms, you’d understand.” Debra was quietly offended that Maddie hadn’t touched an appetizer yet.
“No thanks,” Maddie said flatly. “I’m not interested in touching one of your mushrooms.”
“These mushrooms are from a gourmet cuisine website!” Debra huffed.
“I’m just not into them, okay?”
I laughed, but Debra didn’t get the joke. She was still upset.
“Will you guys stop!” Penny hollered. “We’re supposed to be here for Sydney. It’s her night, right?”
Penny had shamed everyone.
“Sorry, kiddo.” Maddie gave me a hug.
When the slipper fit Cinderella, there was a collective sigh of relief that we could shut it off.
“It gives me hope,” Penny said, tearing up.
“Are you still looking online?” Maddie asked.
“Yeah,” Penny answered. “Not everyone on there is bad.”
“Oh yes, they are,” Maddie exclaimed. “Look at all the nuts you’ve met at the airport.”
“So,” Debra said, standing up, “did we get your mind off Valerie?”
“Văldemort,” I corrected.
“What happened with y’all?” Penny asked softly.
“We just fell out of love,” I responded.
“I never understood that,” Maddie said. “If you once loved someone, how can you fall out of it unless you didn’t really love them to start with?”
“I did in the beginning,” I said defensively. “I know it seems kind of weird. But that’s what happened.”
“So you guys don’t do the club scene?” Debra asked, trying to get me out of the hot seat.
“It’s just not fun,” Penny said. “The music now is pounding, like listening to a wreckin’ ball, so you can’t hear what anyone is screaming in your ear.”
“The songs suck now too,” Maddie said. “It’s techno shit. You scream for hours, trying to have a conversation. Then you just go home, crawl into bed, and the only tongue you get is from your dogs.”
“Eww,” I groaned.
Maddie realized she was talking about herself and saw everyone staring at her. “Well, you’ll go home to your computer.” She was looking at me and Penny. “A cold, flat comfort in the night.”
“Uh, you know, thanks.” I stuffed my face with chips.
“Clubs are more occasional for women our age,” Maddie told Debra. “I don’t know what you do in the straight world, if it’s really like Sex and the City, where you sit around drinking Cosmos all day. But when lesbians get older, they quit the bars and start having cookouts.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “Is it true?”
Maybe Maddie was an authority on lesbians.
“Think of all the friends we’ve had who have coupled off,” Maddie continued. “We never see them anymore unless it’s a cookout. Barb and Sally? When did we see them last?”
I thought about it. “Their Fourth of July…cookout.”
“Wow.” For Debra, it was like taking a class in Lesbians 101.
It felt good to laugh. I laughed until I couldn’t breathe. I never wanted the night to end.