Everyone has a type they'd like to date. Others have a type they avoid at all costs.
“Tough break, Billie.” said Tobias, my bartender. I didn’t drink in town very often, but when I did, it was always at Wreck’s. Wreck's was an old establishment that had been several things in it's colorful 300-year history: a restaurant, a hotel, an antique shop, a bed and breakfast, and a museum. Now it was a bar. You could see the history of the place in the surroundings: An antique player piano left over from the antique shop, the 1920s crystal chandlier from when the place was a restaurant, and old advertisements proclaiming the building as the oldest in the state. There were cracks in the ceiling, in the uneven wooden planks on the floor, in the walls, everywhere. The place definitely looked it's age. Most of my friends thought the bar was a rundown piece of crap dive bar in a hick southern town. They preferred to go into the city where the music was loud, and you could dance with whoever you wanted without being labeled a freak. On that night, I didn't care. All I wanted to do was block out out my pain and not feel anything. Usually, I could handle it, but not on that night. Too much had happened to me. I imagined all of my responsibilities like a rising flood that threatened to drown me in a river of failures. I balled up my hands and resisted the urge to bang my hands against the polished cherry wood bar out of frustration.
“Tell me about it. I get scapegoated because I’m not working fast enough? It’s total bullshit!” I usually never complained about work, but I had just lost my job. I was laid off because my ‘production’ levels weren’t high enough. I still had my second job, but it had never been my main source of income. It would barely help me cover rent for the next month. I took a shot of Jagermeister all at once. It was my fifth one, and it tasted like a licorice dream. Most people couldn’t stand the stuff, but it was my signature drink. I blew out a warm breath and felt the alcohol ooze over my insides like a soothing cold medicine. If I wanted a shortcut to emotional and physical oblivion, Jager had always been the best way to go. I didn't feel anything after the fifth shot, my lucky number. After number five, the pain in my foot was non-existant. I could pretend for a little while that I was normal, and that I was like everyone else, and that I wasn't afraid of turning cripple in the distant, yet definite future.
“You’ll get something else.” Tobias slid a few Michelobs down the bar to a couple of white-bearded bikers down at the end of the counter. Even in the dim light, I could see their tattoos, blurred and running together. I didn't see the point in tattoos. The end result was the same as someone writing on their skin and smudging it with a wet thumb. All tattoos were blobs in the end, just like everything else. Completely pointless.
“Of course I will.” I huffed.
Tobias nodded in agreement, quickly wiping down condensation on the bar from a careless patron who hadn't used a coaster before leaving. “You’re a hard worker.”
“Damn right I am. You know, if it wasn’t for that stupid manager, I’d still be working. You know, she doesn’t even know where the checks are in the office? Barely in her fucking position two months, and she thinks she can start firing good, hard working people. You know who else she canned? A single mother of four barely keeping her family fed as it was. Because she was fifteen minutes late a few times? Shit. She’s a fucking mother! She had responsibilities!” I ran my fingers through my long braided hair. “Give me another shot, Tobias.” Tobias gave me another, and I downed it momentarily. Someone sat down on the stool next to me, but I didn’t turn to see who it was. I didn’t care.
“You’ll be alright. You’ll just pick yourself up and keep going.”
I nodded. “I don’t know what it is about blondes. They think the whole world is ready to hand them whatever the fuck they want because they look pretty." I held up my empty shot glass and pointed at Tobias. "But ask yourself the question: have you ever seen a gorgeous blonde over forty?”
Tobias looked nervously at the person sitting to my left before answering. “I don’t know.”
“I never have. And you know why? Because blondes age like milk. Horribly. Give me a luscious, bronze-skinned, curly-haired brunette any day. They have brains. They don’t sit around all day staring at clipboards wondering what the hell they’re doing.” To me, blondeness seemed to be a free pass for certain women to get whatever they wanted without having to work for it. It made me sick just thinking about it. I had promised myself that I would never, under any circumstances, date a blonde.
Tobias restrained a chuckle. “You better watch out, Billie. You’re sitting next to a blonde.”
I gave him a big shrug. “So what? I’m only telling the truth.” A cosmopolitan arrived for the other bar patron. “I bet she didn’t even have to buy that drink.”
“What is your problem?” The voice sounded familiar, but I was so tipsy, it didn’t register immediately.
I avoided looking at her on purpose, sitting rail straight on my bar stool and looking straight ahead. “My problem is that I have to put up with assholes who pretend to work while they’re off in a dark corner somewhere bitching about nothing.”
“It’s not my fault you couldn’t keep up-”
“What the hell?” I finally realized who I was talking to. I turned and looked at the woman sitting next to me. She was my ex-boss, the one that had fired me. Most people thought she was beautiful, with her white-blonde hair, steel-grey eyes, and willowy frame, but I didn’t. I thought she was weak. She could barely use a pallet jack, and I had never seen her lift anything heavier than twenty-five pounds. Ironic for someone who was supposed to be a stocking supervisor. Seeing her again almost made me lose it completely. “What the hell do you mean by that? If you were really doing a box count, you would know I was putting up fifty boxes an hour! That’s more than those jack offs who kiss your ass every day!”
“You never put up that amount consistently-”
“Who ever does? Between helping customers and stopping new stockers from putting freight where it doesn’t belong, no one exactly lives up to the Shop Mart standards. But then again, neither do you.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.” She said, the faint pattern of crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes softening somewhat. She wasn't a young woman, maybe in her mid to late thirties. I had never bothered to find out for sure.
“Just fuck off and let me drink.” After another two shots of Jaeger, I started to cry. I didn’t know why I was crying, I thought I was stronger than that. I felt a delicate hand rub the back of my shirt, and I shrugged it off. “Don’t touch me.” I had Tobias give me another shot before everything went blurry. I had reached my limit- no, I had gone over it, actually. I had a strict five drink limit, and I couldn’t remember how many I Jaeger shots I'd done. I stood up, and didn’t realize I was falling until I hit the floor. I stared up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, watching them spin. I closed my eyes, berating myself for being so stupid.
A pair of thin, lean hands attached themselves to my shoulders and sat me up. My vision was so blurry, I couldn’t see who it was. “Can you walk?” It was my ex-boss.
“Yeah. Just fine.” I lied. I didn’t want her help or pity. I used my hands to try to pull myself to my feet, and stifled a cry deep in my throat. It was my damn foot again! I could usually ignore the pain, but I realized I must have twisted it when I fell. I forced myself to stand, blindly using a bar stool as support.
“I know. Old problem.” I hissed. If it wasn’t for the bar stool, I knew I would have fallen again.
“Maybe you should go home.” Tobias suggested
My head lolled oddly, the best nod I could give him. “Yeah.” I took a step, and winced in pain.
“Let me call you a cab, Billie.” offered Tobias.
“Thanks.” I said. I took my time walking to the door of the bar, using an occasional chair or table as support. Every step was like a knife into the instep of my foot, and the whole room was spinning. Someone opened the door for me. “Thanks..” I groaned out.
Once I got outside, I nearly fell over since there was nothing to hold onto. Someone grabbed my hand and helped me stand, gripping the back of my arm and putting an arm around my waist. “Where do you live?” The voice was unclear, like it was far away. I pointed in my home’s general direction. “Do…I.D?” I couldn’t hear the words in the middle of the question. What about my I.D.? I wondered.
That was my last thought until I woke up. It was dark all around me, and I couldn’t make anything else out. I knew I wasn’t in my own bed. The mattress and sheets were too soft, like a fancy hotel. I tried to get up, and I screamed. The pain in my foot was excruciating, but I knew how to handle it. The biggest problem was lack of circulation, and I knew as soon as I started moving it around, it would loosen up and the pain would lessen to a distant, steady throb. I sat up and dangled my feet over the side of the bed, rotating my left ankle. A light illuminated the room dimly. I saw nothing but wall to wall books in the room, leather bound and hardcover mixed together. I was impressed. I always liked reading, but because of my work schedule, hadn’t been able to read as much as I wanted to.
“Are you alright?” I heard the voice of my ex-boss too close for comfort.
“Shit. What am I doing here?” I cursed. I stood up, forgetting my foot wasn’t exercised enough. I bit my hand to keep from crying out. A fresh sting of tears welled up in my eyes, but I quickly blinked them back.
“You should see a doctor. You must have sprained your ankle.”
“It’s like this all the time. It’s just worse when I wake up.” I rotated my ankle slowly, letting the familiar flow of pain creep over the top of foot. I noticed it was slightly swollen, the result of too many nights on my feet, and the fall I had taken earlier that night. I tried to ignore that.
“Are you being treated for it?”
I gave her a dry, harsh chuckle. “Your predecessor told me I wouldn’t have a job if I got surgery. Not that I can afford it.” I took a few steps, limping miserably.
“Let me help you.” she offered, taking my shoulder.
I was suddenly embarrassed for being rude to her earlier. She had brought me to her home, and put me into a bed, instead of just dumping me somewhere or calling the cops to have me arrested to for public intoxication. While it was true I had a good enough reason to be pissed off at her, I was willing to let bygones be bygones. “Thank you, but no. I have to get going.”
“You’ve only been asleep three hours. There’s no way you’re sober.”
I chuckled. I always had a high tolerance for alcohol. If I stopped drinking, thirty minutes later I'd be sober. “I’ve heard that before.”
She looked at me oddly. “How are you still standing? Between the Jagermeister and your foot-”
“Because I have to.”
She nervously rubbed her arm. “Well, at least let me get you some coffee.”
I wanted to refuse her, but I was curious. Why had she brought me here? All she had to do was drop me into a cab and get my address off my driver’s license. “Alright.” I followed her out of the bedroom into a small hallway, and into a tiny dining room that held a small, round kitchen table with only two chairs. I took my time sitting down, making sure my left foot was balanced on my heel pointed straight ahead. If I let it point in any other direction, it would be pure hell getting up.
“How do you like your coffee?” She asked from the kitchen, pulling out two white coffee mugs.
“Black.” I didn’t want to be there any longer than I had to be. I felt like I owed her, and I hated the feeling.
She poured me a cup, and one for herself, and sat across from me at the table. I took a hesitant sip. I never drank coffee, always hated the taste, but I showed no reaction. She stared at me. “That coffee’s scalding.”
“So?” I took another sip. It burned my tongue some, but I had trained myself not to show any pain. It was bad enough she had heard me scream earlier. I didn’t want to look like a total wimp by not being able to drink coffee.
“You don’t have to do that to yourself.”
“That has got to be burning the shit out of your tongue.”
I shrugged, annoyed that she was questioning my coffee drinking skills when I was trying to be civil. “And?”
“I thought that that attitude of yours was an act, but I can see that it’s not.”
“What attitude? I can handle most things that would leave most people crying, ‘I can’t handle it, I can’t handle it’. That’s not an attitude. That’s a fact.” A burned tongue was nothing compared to the near-constant pain I found myself in. The only time my foot wasn’t in pain was when I was drunk or asleep.
“You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“I’m already hurt. It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter.”
“Why am I even here? You could have just dropped me off at my house.”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay. I’m a registered nurse.”
I suddenly felt foolish about calling her a dumb blonde. “Oh.” I waited a few seconds before making myself apologize. “I’m sorry about what I said earlier.”
She smiled slightly. “It wasn’t anything I haven’t heard before. You were angry.”
“I still am. I better go.” I slowly hauled myself up to my feet.
“How long do you think can keep this up?”
“It’s not something I like thinking about. I honestly have no idea. I know I’m just putting off the inevitable. I will have to have surgery in the future, it’s just a matter of when.” She looked at me wistfully, and I was sorry I told her anything at all. “Don’t look at me like that. I don’t need pity.”
She looked down at her coffee, which she hadn't started drinking yet. “Listen. It’s already one a.m. Why don’t you stay here and sleep until the sun comes up?”
I shrugged. “I’m so awake now, I couldn’t go back to sleep if I tried. A side effect of working overnight, I guess. I wouldn’t want to keep you up.”
She smiled. “I’m a chronic insomniac. I’ll be awake too.” I rotated my heel again, trying to keep it from falling asleep. “Look, if you need medication-”
I shook my head. “I don’t do pills unless I absolutely have to. Anything strong enough to knock out the pain just makes me drowsy, anyway.”
“You’d rather be in pain then be sleepy?”
“It goes beyond being sleepy when I take pain medication. I have to fight to stay awake. And if I have to fight to stay awake, I might as well be asleep and not bother with pills in the first place. It’s usually not this bad. I overdid it tonight. I have strict limits on my drinking, and I broke them all.”
“What are your limits?”
“No more than two shots at a time within an hour. I must have done at least…eight.”
“And they were all Jaeger shots?”
"Yes. It’s too expensive to get drunk. I usually don’t even bother.”
“Usually someone your age would be happy to go out and get shit-faced.”
“Not me. I only like to drink when I’m around my friends. Then I feel great and I can say whatever-” I realized I was saying too much. My mouth closed like a trap. We sat in awkward silence.
“So what do you do when you’re not with your friends?”
I shrugged. I didn't want her to think I was weird. Too many people thought I was already. “Not much.”
“You must do something.”
“I dunno. I write. I guess.”
“What do you write?”
I shrugged. “Anything.”
“Poetry? Novels? Songs?” She seemed really interested in my response. I was taken aback by that. Most people thought I was nuts for trying to write anything, or else just jealous.
“Yes. I did say everything.”
“Would you mind reciting one of your poems for me.”
I shifted uncomfortably. I kept everything about myself hidden in my poetry, mostly my weakness and desires. “I’d rather not.”
“I’m not a prude. I’ve pretty much heard it all.”
I thought of a poem. “Okay. This one is called ‘Kat’…” I proceeded to recite a poem that I had dedicated to an ex of mine. It explored our relationship, and how we had broken up because I was unwilling to come out of the closet.
“Do you still love her?”
I stared at her before dropping my eyes. “I don’t…I don’t know.”
“Let me guess. She is a luscious, bronze-skinned brunette.”
I smiled weakly. “Yeah.” I stared at her again. “It doesn’t bother you that I’m gay?”
She shook her long blonde hair. “No. It never has.”
“You knew?” I was surprised by that. Usually only gay or bisexual people could recognize my sexuality, but I had never gotten that vibe from Bette. I assumed she knew a few gay people, or maybe had a gay cousin or something.
“I guessed.” She looked as if she was studying me before changing the subject. “Well, since you’re a writer, I’m guessing you’re a reader too.”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“So you like your fiction rooted in fact. That’s interesting.”
“I guess I just like learning while being entertained.”
“You read historical fiction to learn?”
“Yes. I’ve always liked ‘The Black Arrow’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. There aren’t too many readily accessible sources about The War Of The Roses. R.L.S. was a very descriptive writer. I had no idea light armor was more common than chain mail.”
“At that time period, fortunate noblemen wore jacks, jackets lined with plate armor. Jacks were like the medieval version of the bulletproof vest. Of course, back then, they had to be arrow proof.” My ex-boss was leaning towards me, listening intently. I looked away, feeling uncomfortable. “That must really bore you. I mean who cares about history?”
“I do. And I love historical fiction. Did you notice my book collection?”
“Yes. I haven’t seen a leather-bound book in years.” I bit my lip, hesitating. I really wanted to see what she had, but she had been so nice to me already. I owed her enough as it was.
“Would you like to see some of my books? I have some rare first editions.”
I told myself I didn’t owe her anything since she offered first. “Alright.”
“Do you need help-”
“No. I’ll be fine. I just won’t be able to walk as fast.” I rose to get up and misjudged the weight to put on my foot. The left side of my body sank down, making me feel like a puppet with slackened strings.
She was by my side in an instant, holding me up. “That’s enough. You’ve got to stop doing this to yourself.”
Her skin was soft, and I could feel the heat from the coffee in her fingers when she held me around my waist. I didn't like her holding me like that. “I’m fine. Really.”
“Accepting help doesn’t make you weak, Billie.” She told me, ignoring my protests. She helped me walk back into the bedroom. I got back up into the bed, dangling my feet over the edge. My ex-boss did the same, and for the first time I realized I didn’t remember her name. My embarrassment was heightened when she sat next to me on the bad. “I thought sitting here would be more comfortable than at the table. Is that all right with you?”
What did I care? I didn’t do blondes, and I was positive she didn’t have one gay bone in her body. “Sure.” She got up and took down a leather bound book. The golden letters on the spine were worn away, but when she opened it, it was remarkably well persevered. It was a rare colorized version of “The Black Arrow”. I stared at her. “Where did you get this?”
“It was my mother’s. She never read it, so she gave it to me as a birthday present a few years back.”
“This is beautiful.” I marveled at all the brilliant colors made over a hundred years ago with chemicals long since banned. Ironic that colors so brilliant could only be made with toxins. I turned the pages carefully, not wanting to damage them. Not once did she tell me to give it back or that I was holding it improperly. The Black Arrow was my favorite book, and there was nothing better than holding one of the first copies made. I was on Cloud 9 just holding it!
“How’s your foot?” she asked, after a minute.
I rotated my ankle stiffly, and lied. “Fine. I guess.”
She held my eyes for a long bright moment, her grey eyes glowing in the dim light. “Let me help you.” I nodded, not able to speak. She slipped off the bed and tenderly took my bad foot and started to massage it. I barely felt her fingertips on the sole of my foot thanks to a large callus that had built up. “Your foot has been like this for years.”
I nodded. “Yes. It only started acting up when I started stocking. I just thought I had an ugly foot.”
She ran her hands from my heel to my toes. “You have a collapsed arch.”
I swallowed hard. “Yes.”
She touched the inside of my foot, lightly pressing against the bone that was more distended than it should have been. “The bones in your feet?”
“My heel is crooked. In an X-ray, my foot looks like a goddamn boomerang.” I made myself swallow hard to choke down some of my bitterness.
“I’m sorry.” She apologized, holding my foot softly. “I’m sure you don’t like to be reminded.” She started rubbing my foot, using her thumbs in small circular motions.
“What are you doing?” I asked. I didn’t want her to stop, I just wanted to know why she was doing that. And why I was still there in her house?
“It’s funny I learned more about you by watching you read than all the hours you spent at work.” she replied, not answering my question.
“Why did you want to learn more about me?”
“Because you didn’t give anyone any information about yourself unless you were asked for it. You never let anyone in.”
I closed my eyes, letting her fingers do their magic work. “I wasn’t always like that. You should have seen me a year ago. A straight arrow, always smiling, or at least pleasant. And I went above and beyond my responsibilities. But my pain changed all that.”
“How’s your pain now?” She asked, focusing on my ankle.
“Better.” I admitted. “You said you were an R.N. Why did you stop working as a nurse?”
She released my foot momentarily, then took it again. “I always had a problem when a patient died. I’d grieve over them like they were family. I was too sensitive. I couldn’t forget them, or push them out of my mind.”
“What kind of nurse were you?”
“I worked in the E.R. I assisted the doctors in the trauma unit.”
She might as well have punched me in the stomach. I wished I could have taken back every harsh word and thought I had ever had about her. “For how long?”
“Six years. The doctors called me Nurse Betty because I was so sweet.”
That was it! Her name was Bette, I remembered. It was then I truly realized how withdrawn I had been. Just numbly following orders like a toy soldier. Feeling nothing. “You still are.” I realized I couldn’t feel the pain anymore. I closed ‘The Black Arrow’ carefully. “I don’t deserve any of this. I was mean to you.”
She smiled softly. “You were also right. I don’t have the head for managing freight. I don’t belong there, in the backroom.” she grinned at me. “That’s probably why I was canned tonight.”
“What? You were fired too?” I jumped, making my foot jerk in her hands and twisting it painfully.
“Relax.” Bette starting massaging my ankle. “I wasn’t getting the desired results. I had been warned before.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea. What are you going to do now?”
“I want to be a nurse again, but-” she didn’t finish.
“You’re scared. ”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Maybe you could be a different kind of nurse. I’m sure you would like working in a doctor’s office.”
She sniffed. “The blonde woman’s curse is her beauty.”
“What happened to you?”
“The doctor thought that every woman in the world was fair game. Blondes happened to be his favorite though. In fact, the only reason he hired me was because he thought he could have me. You know, his little fun play thing at work or while his wife was away.”
I slipped out of bed and sat next to her on he floor. “Did he-”
“No. He just fired me when he realized I was never going to let him touch me.”
I leaned down and touched her shoulder lightly. I surprised at how thin it was. My hand looked a giant brown spider about to gobble it up. “I’m sorry. Whatever made you decide to work for The Store?”
She shrugged. “I needed a job that had nothing to do with nursing. I put in my application at The Store, and the rest is history.” She looked at the floor. “You know, I had no business being there. I just don’t have the head for numbers. I can move people, but I have a slight problem when it comes to moving several hundred pounds of water.”
“To be honest, I didn’t belong there either. I need something less…physical. My foot will only support me for so long. I was working in an office before I was hired by The Store. Maybe I’ll go back to being an office assistant or a clerk or something.”
“I think you’d be really good at that.”
“And I think you’d be a really good nurse again.” Bette blushed. “What?”
“I didn’t think you gave compliments.”
“It’s true. I’m just not a fan of flattery. You do have a healing touch. I can’t remember the last time my foot felt this good. I don’t know how to thank you.”
She touched my arm. “I’ve never seen you smile before.” I smiled hesitantly. She tilted her head and nudged me in the arm. “I think you can do better than that.” I gave her a quick smile. She smiled back. “You should smile more often. It really lights up your whole face.”
“I usually don’t have much to smile about.” I admitted, looking away. The room got quiet for a few minutes.
“How did you like ‘The Black Arrow’?”
“It’s a beautiful book.”
“Why don’t you look at it some more while I massage your other foot?”
I bit my lip, debating. I didn’t want to impose on her any more, but she really seemed like she wanted to. “Okay.” Bette helped me up and back on the bed.
“This one isn’t so bad.” She noted. “I can see how you managed to get around all this time.” She was right. My left foot and right foot were like night and day. My right foot was slightly flat, but was nowhere near as bad as my left. She tickled the sole of my right foot.
“Hey!” I exclaimed, jumping and nearly dropping ‘The Black Arrow’ in the process.
“I am so gonna get you back for that!” I hopped down from the bed and started tickling her, my dexterous fingers attacking her underarms like spiders.
“Quit it! Quit it!” she giggled.
“Alright! I’m sorry for tickling you first!”
I stopped. “Thank you.” I told her, getting up.
By now, her whole body was flushed a bright red, and her hair was tousled by our exertions. Bette blew her hair out of her face. “And I’m sorry for everything else, too.”
I shook my head. “About firing me? Don’t be. You let me see one of my favorite books.” I chuckled. “And you’ve been giving me foot massages for the past half hour. I think that more than makes up for anything that might have happened earlier.” I wasn’t the most forgiving person, but a little bribery went a long way.
“Me losing my job helps a bit too, doesn’t it?”
I nodded. “A little.” I admitted. “But the blame wasn’t entirely on you. Maybe if I was a little more friendly…”
“They would have made me let you go no matter what.”
“Let me finish your right foot, and I’ll explain.” Bette helped back onto the bed, and she started working on my foot, starting at my heel and working her way up. “I was told to get rid of anyone who wasn’t putting up fifty boxes of freight an hour. Period.”
“That’s why you let Annie go too.” Annie was the perpetually tired woman with four kids who worked three jobs. She would get some sleep tonight after being laid off, but I doubted it would be much. Worry for the future would keep her awake tonight instead of fatigue.
“Yes. Salaried management said it was either you or me.” She chuckled harshly. “In the end it didn’t matter.” She started working on my ankle. “Do you have shin splints too?”
“Yes.” Her question caught me off guard. “Why?”
“People that have collapsed arches usually get shin splints, because of the continuous shock of hitting the ground flat. I bet you’ve had a knee injury too.”
“Yeah.” I had to admit, I was impressed. “But I thought you were a trauma unit nurse. How do you know so much about minor muscle injuries?”
“I used to be an assistant to my high school’s athletic trainer before I went to college.” She rubbed the back of my calf. “Do you mind if I massaged your legs next?” I didn’t answer. My feet were one thing, but I didn’t know about her touching the rest of me. I might not have been immediately attracted to Bette, but there was always the possibility that my body could…react. “If I make you feel uncomfortable, just let me know, and I’ll stop.” I looked at her suspiciously. “I won’t tickle you any more.”
“Alright.” I agreed reluctantly.
“Lay down on your stomach.”
I immediately tried to get up, not liking where the conversation was going. “No. Uh-uh.”
“Why not?” She wanted to know. I realized I was being silly. She hadn’t come on to me at all. Not since I’d known her, and not since she’d taken me home. Still, I wasn’t as sure of myself as I had been three hours ago. I shook my head as an answer. “I bet you’ve never had a massage before. It’s nothing to be nervous about. I’ll stop whenever you want me to.”
“It’s not that. I just don’t want you to think that I’m going to get excited while you’re rubbing me down.”
“If you do get excited, it‘s not a big deal.” She shrugged. “Like I said before, I’m no prude.” I found myself looking away from her. “I bet you expected me to get embarrassed and blush.”
“I don’t know what I expected.” I looked at her again, searching her eyes for any signs of deception. I didn't find any. “I don’t know what to expect now.”
“Don’t expect anything. Just relax.”
I sighed. “Alright.” I took off my pants and rolled over. I felt Bette’s long fingers smooth over my calves.
“Your legs are very defined. Do you work out?”
I smiled into my arms, which were propped up under my chin. People asked me that all the time. “No. Work is my exercise.”
She proceeded to knead my left leg in slow firm motions. “I heard that you have a second job.”
“I do. I work as a cashier at another retail store.”
“Wow. How many hours did you work a week?”
“I put in forty hours a week at Shop Mart, and then another twenty at Everything’s A Dollar.” Her hands felt so good, I just wanted to stay quiet and enjoy the message, but Bette wanted to know more about me.
“How did that work?”
“I’d work afternoons and evenings at E.A.D., then I’d go straight to Shop Mart for my eight hour shift. I only did that three times a week, so it wasn’t too bad, once I got used to it.” I felt her work out a knot in my calf I didn’t know I had. “That feels really good.”
I could hear the smile in her voice. “You’re welcome.” She started working on my other leg. “How’d you get your knee injury?”
“Back when I was in high school. I was working out, and I think I pulled something. I was out of commission for the last month or so of my senior year. It was kind of disappointing. That was the time of year when everyone tried to break records.”
“You were into sports?”
“No. I just liked weight lifting. I actually wanted to do a little amateur lifting on the side, but my Mom wasn’t too happy about that. She wasn’t too happy when I tried out for the football team either.”
“Do you mind if I massage your knees and thighs?”
“Not at all.” I felt her hands smooth over my knees, rough after continuously kneeling down to stock soup cans on low grocery shelves.
“You must have been really athletic a few years ago.”
“Believe it or not, I really wasn’t. I was kind of a nerd. I was always reading random books. I didn’t really do much working out besides my weight training classes.”
“I used to run cross country.”
“You did? I bet you were good.”
“What makes you think that?”
“You’re tall. Tall people have longer strides. Like the Kenyans who win every long-distance track competition known to man!”
“You watch running competitions?” She spread my legs slightly so she could be closer to my thighs. Her hand motions became slower and more circular, but I tried not to read anything in it.
“Not as much as I used to, no. When I was a kid, I used to watch any athletic competition I could. It was just so great to see dancers, ice skaters, football players, and basketball players in motion. It made me feel…happy I guess. I just loved seeing them. Doing the impossible. Breaking records. Getting standing ovations and flowers. Sports meant a lot to me back then.”
“What’s changed now?”
“Work. My foot. The Bulls aren’t ‘The Dream Team’ anymore. Marion Jones humiliated the U.S. track team with her doping fiasco. Not to mention the fact that sports competitors across the board have gotten mediocre as of late.”
“What about Michael Phelps?”
“Eight gold medals? That is pretty amazing, but I’ve never gotten excited about swimmers. Probably because you can’t really see their bodies doing anything. It all looks like a bunch of splashing around in the water.” I chuckled to myself.
“So you like to see bodies in motion?”
“I never thought of it that way, but yes, I guess that’s true. It’s just amazing what everyone can do if they don’t have limitations.”
“I bet you wanted to be an athlete when you were a kid.”
I didn’t speak for a long, silent moment. I remembered watching Power Rangers and wanting to be just like them, saving the world with my fists. I had begged my mother for one year for lessons, but she never gave in. “I wanted to take karate classes, but my mother thought it was too violent.”
“Mind if I work on your back?”
“Sure.” I took off my shirt without thinking.
“Bra too.” This time, I felt her hands on my bra clasp, freeing my breasts. After I removed the straps, I felt her hands smooth over my lower back softly. Almost too softly to be a massage. “Your mother seems to be very protective of you.”
“She’s not so bad any more. But back in the day, I couldn’t even play outside if she wasn’t home.” Bette moved her fingers in wave-like motions over my lower back, her palms brushing the top of my panties.
“I bet you went to church every week.”
“I only missed eleven days of church from the time I was an infant until the time I was twelve.” I chuckled, but I didn’t know why I was laughing. I had always hated church.
“Did you stop going when you were twelve?”
“Pretty much. I was never as big into God as my Mom was, and going to church was an all day affair. I think I was just tired of it. So when I was twelve, me and my mother would fight about it. Sometimes she would succeed in making me go, sometimes she wouldn’t.” I thought back to my turbulent teenage years. I would fight like hell to avoid church. I scream, yell, push my bed against my bedroom door to barracade myself in, anything to avoid it.
Bette smoothed her fingers up the sides of my torso, brushing my breasts slightly. “Was that around the time you found out you were gay?”
“Yes. I couldn’t act on my feelings until years later, but yes. I realized I liked women when this girl in my math class-” I stopped, and suddenly remembered the real reason I disliked blondes.
“Are you alright?” I felt her rub my shoulders encouragingly.
“I think we should stop.” I hadn’t thought about my first crush in years. She had been quiet, like me. With honey-blonde hair, and cornflower blue eyes which were either hidden behind her glasses or a book. I never told her how I felt. I had been too terrified. Since then I had always made it an unconscious rule to avoid blondes.
I felt Bette place a small, soft kiss on the small of my back. “That’s why you can’t ever come out. I bet that’s why you don’t like blondes either.”
“My mother would kill me.” I didn’t mention the kiss. I was too distracted by my own turbulent feelings. “She would have killed me then.”
“Have you tried coming out before?” She asked, smoothing her hand over my back lightly.
“She blamed me for all her problems, saying it was God punishing the whole household for my sins. I took it back, saying it was one big joke. She believed me. Or, she didn’t want to believe the truth.” I sniffed, holding back my tears.
Bette moved and lay down next to me on the bed. “My mother still doesn’t want to know.” I turned and looked at her as if I was seeing her for the first time. Why hadn't I known? “Whenever we speak, the first thing she says is ‘I don’t want to hear any unsettling news about you’. It’s an understanding we have between us. I am not supposed to discuss that…part of my life with her.”
“What else can you talk about?”
“How much of a failure I am. That seems to be my mother’s favorite topic. She warned me about becoming a nurse. Said I was better suited to business. She said that I wouldn’t be able to handle it.” Bette swallowed hard. “And she was right. I couldn’t.” I could see she was crying, her tears illuminated by the dim light like lava flows.
I instinctively hugged her. “You’re not a failure. You must have helped hundreds of people in those six years. And you helped me.”
I felt her kiss on my cheek as soft as velvet. And then another on my neck. “I always knew you were sweet.”
“Don’t-” I started to say, pulling away from her. “You got the wrong idea. I’m not looking for that.”
I found my shirt and bra and put them back on, needing to put more space between the two of us. I felt too naked, too weak. “I’m leaving.” Was this the real reason she helped me? I asked myself.
“Please. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I don’t…I don’t want to.”
“When I saw you at the bar, I honestly wanted to help-”
“And now you want to fuck me.” I spat, putting my pants back on.
“You did let me kiss you on the back. If you had given me a sign you didn’t want me to go there, I wouldn’t have.”
“It’s just-” I started, closing my eyes. “I think I’ve given you enough of myself as it is. ”
She sighed. “I guess it doesn’t help that I’m a blonde, does it?” I gave her a weak smile in response. “Well, I’m not going to kick you out because you rejected me. The offer still stands if you still want to spend the night.”
“I’ll be in the other room. I’ve got to update my resume.” she got off the bed and started walking out.
“Bette? I hope we can be friends.” I said lamely.
She grinned, and the lines on the sides of her eyes crinkled. “I thought we already were. Call me if you need anything.”
When she left the room, I asked myself if I had made the right decision for several seconds. I decided I had. I didn’t need any more distractions in my life. It was bad enough I had to go looking for another job. I didn’t need to hide yet another relationship from my mother. I stood up and looked at the other books in Bette’s collection. Among the books in her collection were The Three Musketeers, War and Peace, and Treasure Island. There were also several Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot detective books. To my surprise, I noted several books on Hindu and Sikh philosophy and religion. She had the entire 18 book volume of the Mahabharata, the Guru Granth Sahib, and several other sacred texts. I wondered if Bette followed a western religion, or if she just liked studying them. I picked one up, an English translation of the voluminous Guru Granth Sahib, which was some fourteen hundred pages long. The pages separated from the binding almost instantly. I felt bad, certain I’d ruined her book.
With a deep sigh, I sucked up my courage and hobbled into the living room. Bette was typing busily on her laptop. “Bette?”
She looked up at me with concern. “Yes?”
“I think I may have broken your book.”
“Was it the Guru?”
Bette shook her head. “I’ve never had it rebound. It was a mess long before you picked it up. I’ll show you.” We went back into her room, and started picking up the pages of the book.
“How’d you get this?” I asked.
“It was hard, but not impossible.” She sighed, picking handfuls of pages at a time. “I’ve had this book for years. I guess I just wore it out. It would have been easier just to get several volumes of the Guru, instead of having it in one whole book, but that’s not how it’s supposed to be read.”
“How much of it have you read?” I was surprised she had read it that often.
“Most of it. But it has been awhile since I’ve sat down and read the Guru.”
I stopped collecting pages to look at her. “You always call it the Guru. Are you a non-practicing Sikh?”
Bette smiled. “That’s a good question. I feel strongly enough about the faith to wear the five K’s if I was baptized: the strapped dagger, wear my hair in a turban. The whole nine yards.” She sighed and started gently placing the pages back into the binding.
“Like most religions, Sikhism does not recognize homosexuality as an alternate way of living. I won’t be a part of a religion that doesn’t accept all of me.” She looked really sad.
“I’m sorry. I’ve never felt too strongly about any religion one way or another to want to be a part of one.”
“Really? So you’re an atheist?”
I shrugged. “I’m not arrogant enough to believe God doesn’t exist. But I’m also not dumb enough to believe there’s only one right way to live. Mankind is still around because we believe differently.”
“You must like philosophy.”
I grinned bashfully. “Most of it gives me a headache, to tell you the truth. But I like Socrates. Or, rather, what Plato says Socrates said. Why is it that the best philosophers or religious teachers never wrote down what they taught? I’ve asked myself that question for about a day and a half before I figured it out.”
“What did you figure out?”
“That it doesn’t matter. In the end, people just use religion to do whatever they want anyway. Is a Catholic any different than a Hindu? They both believe that several deities and or spirits can be contacted for help. How is praying to Mary for mercy any different than praying to Sita for mercy? None. Catholics have almost nothing in common with Seventh-day Adventists, but yet they’re both Christians.” I winced a little, certain I’d offended her. “Sorry. Now you know why I’m so quiet.”
Surprisingly, she smiled. “You really shouldn’t be." She turned back to the bookshelf, and ran her fingertips over the bindings, like a carress. "I bet you’ve read every book I have here, haven’t you?”
“I haven’t really read any of the detective books you have, but I’ve always wanted to get into the Hercule Poirot books by Agatha Christie.”
Bette reached up and tapped her fingers over the books in her book case, from black to brown, and finally on a tan spined book. It had a pale cover with ugly-looking abstract mountains on it. The book was entitled, ‘Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death’. “Here.” She said, handing it to me. “It’s a first edition from the United Kingdom.”
“Is it good?” I asked reluctantly.
“We both have similar mothers. I think you’ll like it.”
I looked at the digital clock she had on a nightstand. The time was already three in the morning. “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish this all in a few hours.” I was a fast reader, but detective novels and thrillers took time to figure out.
“You don’t have to. I’m giving it to you.” She smiled.
“Why would you give this to me?”
“Because I know you’ll take care of it. I saw the way you handled ‘The Black Arrow’. Not only are you a reader, you care about books. I’m sure you have a lot of books at home, yourself.”
I shook my head. “It’s nothing like you have. They’re mostly R.L. Stine books, and a few reference concordances.”
“Any from the ‘Fear Street’ series?”
“A few. I even managed to get my hands on a first edition ‘Superstitious’ hardcover.”
Bette beamed. “Really? I’d love to see it.”
I found my cheeks heat up. “I’ll bring it out to you. My place is kind of a mess.”
“Still live at home?”
I bit my lip in embarrassment. “Yeah.”
“And you wouldn’t want your mother asking questions about a strange woman who wants to see your books.”
“Right again.” I tilted my head and looked at her oddly. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say we’ve known each other a long time.”
“Sure feels that way, doesn’t it?” We were both quiet for a minute while I looked over ‘Appointment With Death’. “Do you think I’m-” started Bette suddenly before cutting herself off.
“What?” I said, looking up from the book.
Bette’s face was completely pink. “Nothing.”
Her bashful behavior wasn’t lost on me. I knew she was attracted to me, but I wasn’t going to go back on what I had said before. There was no point. “Maybe it would be a good idea if I went home now.”
“You’d wake your mother.”
“No. She stopped waiting up for me after I turned twenty-one.”
Bette breathed a sigh of relief. “Glad to know I’m wrong about something. I’ll get back to my resume now. Just get some sleep okay?” she said, leaving quickly.
I could have stopped her and insisted on going home, but the fact was, I didn’t want to go. I liked her, even though I didn’t want to. I liked her books, and the way she treasured them all. And, although I would never admit it, I liked the way she tried to figure me out. I wanted to put a name on the emotion I felt, but didn't succeed, so I spent a few more minutes reading ‘Appointment With Death’ before the pain in my foot forced me to the bed again. I reclined on my side, and before I knew it, I was asleep.
I awoke to a blindingly bright morning sun streaming in from the windows of the small room. I covered my eyes, letting them adjust to the brightness before uncovering them. The digital clock on her nightstand read ten o’clock. I covered my face in my pillow and made a frustrated noise with my throat. My mother was going to have fit! I sat up and dangled my feet over the side of the bed, encouraging my blood circulation. Bette opened the door and came in.
“I guess I should have woken you up sooner.” she said, nervously biting her lips.
I sighed. “It’s alright. I’m twenty-two. It shouldn’t matter what time I come home.”
“It shouldn’t matter, but it does. My mom was the same way.”
“I guess we should go then.” I got to my feet and started putting on my shoes, broken-in Nike crosstrainers. Nothing less than a solid shoe would do. No heels for me, ever. I was reminded of that every time I put on my sneakers.
“Do you want breakfast?”
“No, thank you. I’ll eat something at home.”
“You sure?” She asked, looking hopeful.
“Yeah. I should really go.” I walked outside before I could let her convince me to stay any longer. Once I left, I saw that Bette lived in a one-story apartment complex. It caught me off guard. For some reason I had assumed she lived in a house. I was vaguely familiar with the crème and grey colored buildings. The apartment complex, named The Pines, was notorious for drug dealing and other illegal activities. I wondered why she lived there, and then I realized that the place was probably the best she could afford. After a minute or two, she followed me out with ‘Appointment With Death’ in her hands.
“You forgot something.” She said, handing it to me.
“I shouldn’t take this.” I told her.
“You don’t owe me anything. Just enjoy it.” She got into her Nissan Altima before I could hand it back to her. I followed her in and sat in the passenger seat. “How do you like it so far?”
“I’m guessing that Mrs. Boynton, the evil woman torturing her children, is going to be the murder victim.”
“Find out for yourself.”
“So where am I driving to?”
“I live off of highway 11, going towards Reeseville.” It wasn’t very far away, just a fifteen minute drive.
Bette started up her car and pulled out of her parking spot. “You know, it was really nice having you over.”
“Thank you. I'm sorry you had to rescue me.”
“I didn’t mind that.”
I looked away from her. “It’s embarrassing.”
“Something similar has happened to everyone. Once I woke up in a field after a bender and had to find my way home.”
I laughed, a deep chuckle that came from my belly and made me sound like a man. “Seriously?”
Bette blushed. “Yes, unfortunately.”
We talked all the way back to my house. I found out she was twenty-nine, had never married or had children. “I guess that makes you a gold star.” I noted before I could stop myself.
“A what?” she asked in confusion.
“Nothing, never mind.” I shouldn’t have brought that up. It wasn't time for a sex joke, especially since she liked me.
“The best and brightest of the lesbians are the ones who have never slept with men?” She chuckled. “I guess that sounds about right, since finding yourself is the root of all evil.” She shook her head. “But yes. I am a gold star.”
I bit my lip. “I shouldn’t have assumed anything. I’ve done too much of that lately.”
She smiled slightly. “At least I know you care. One way or the other.”
“My house is the blue one on the left.” I told her, eager to change the subject.
“Why does expressing yourself make you feel so uncomfortable?” She asked, as she paused at a stop sign.
Her question caught me off guard. “I dunno. People take what I say the wrong way, or they don’t really understand what I’m talking about. That’s why I usually don’t bother. That’s the way it’s always been.”
She smiled slightly. “I know the feeling. But you shouldn’t let other people stop you from being who you are.”
I couldn’t look at her. “You don’t understand. If I come out to my mom, I’ll lose everything. She’s said a million times that the worse thing in the world to be is gay. She’d disown me and kick me out of her house. I know she would.”
“I have a feeling she already knows. Most mothers do. They just deny it.” That got my attention. I looked at her in shock. She smiled sympathetically. “I bet she knew about your girlfriend, too.”
I shook my head. “I was really careful. I introduced her to my mom as just a friend. There’s no way my mom knew.”
“Did your mom like her?”
“No. Hmm. I’ve always wondered about that.” I swallowed hard, and started to chuckle at the absurdity of my situation. “I’m a walking joke. I’m an unemployed gimping lesbian who’s about to get thrown out of her mother’s house. How pathetic is that?”
Bette took my hand. “You’re not pathetic. I used to know someone a lot like you a long time ago, and I have a feeling you’re twice as strong as she was.”
“Who was she?”
“Her name was Valli, but I called her Val. And she was my best friend for many years.”
“Were the two of you together?”
Bette shrugged. “Define together. We slept together on occasion, but she could never see herself with me permanently. In the end she married the man her parents chose for her and went back to India.”
“So, she was a Sikh, and that’s why you had the Guru.”
Bette nodded. “Yes.” She rubbed her forehead, and sat quietly for a minute. I was sure I had asked her too many questions, and I was mentally kicking myself when she said, “Maybe it’s time I started practicing what I preach. I’m telling you to come out to your mom, and I don’t even trigger anyone’s gaydar anymore.”
"How long has it been since you've been with someone?"
"Let's just say it's been longer than I expected it to be." She tried to smile, but couldn't quite manage it.
"That was over the line. I'm sorry."
"It's alright. I didn't mind you asking." She waited for me to ask her something else, but I took that as my cue to leave.
"I should go. My mom will get suspicious if I sit out here too long. She'll probably come out in a housecoat and curlers waving a rolling pin or something." I joked.
"Wait. I want to see that R.L. Stine first edition you have. Maybe you could bring it out to me?" I hesitated. I may have talked a good game, but I wanted nothing more than to get inside my house and act like the night before had never happened. She scared me, the way she was so open about who she was and what she believed in. I had always tried to be tough, pushing myself to my limit, ignoring my private pain, but she was more of a badass then I ever could be.
"I really shouldn't keep this." I told her, handing her back 'Appointment With Death', and getting out of the car.
"Not ready yet?" she asked.
I shook my head. "No."
She took my hand. "You don't have to keep on hurting yourself like this. I mean it. I can help you if you need it."
"I don't think anyone can help me. I'm just going to be stuck like this. I can't come out like you."
"When you're ready then." She wrote her number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. "Even if you aren't out, I'd still like to see you."
I chuckled nervously. "See me as in what?"
Bette blushed. "See you. You know...to discuss books."
"Or give me more massages." I said with a grin.
Bette looked away from me. "I shouldn't have tried to make a move on you."
"Don't worry about it. If I had the opportunity to rub somebody down, I wouldn't pass it up."
Bette smirked. "You're pretty cocky for someone who isn't even out yet."
I shrugged, feeling sad all of a sudden. The urge to cry hit me suddenly. I swallowed hard to make the tightness in my chest go away. "Don't remind me." I started to step away from her car, but she caught my hand.
"You will call me, won't you?" She asked.
I wanted to. Maybe if she was an average brunette, I would have found it easy to just walk away, and forget about her. But she was sweet. The kind of sweet I had never found at a bar, or a club, or at PRIDE in the city. I needed sweet, and compassionate, and someone who understood why I couldn't be the strongest person in the world, even though I tried my best to be. "Yes." I told her. I never knew one word could mean so many different things until that moment.
Her eyes sparked, then twinkled, and I allowed myself to admit that she was beautiful. "Great. I'll see you later, then." She replied, as if we had already agreed to a concrete date.
I felt sheepish, and a little dizzy. After realizing I wasn't breathing, I took a deep breath. "Yeah. Later." I stepped away from the car, and she drove off. I stood there for a minute or two, feeling stupid for not giving her my number, but thought that it was for the best. I looked at the slip of paper she had given me, the curly blue numbers scribbled against the off-white paper that had come off a flyer, and I folded it up neatly and taped it to my wallet so I wouldn't lose it. Then I took the long walk across the lawn, past the neat row of lillies that my mother had just planted, and opened the front door.