Love In This Universe  

Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2003


            Rhonda was once in love with Cheryl, and Cheryl was once in love with Rhonda, and they felt a certain mutuality in this even though they both knew love was, and is, too complex to lay down clear, communal definitions.

In a basic sense, though, they loved each other.

They also loved other women.

Cheryl had been with Dawn for fifteen years, practically since they were virgins in high school. 

That’s a long time.

They had a large house.  They had jet skis.  They would role play in bed.

“You be the little, lost girl in a forest, and I’ll be the hunter who rescues you,” Dawn would say, and Cheryl would smile.  Dawn was strong and stable and knew how to take care of things, and Cheryl loved her for this.

They took romantic vacations to Sun Valley and the Bahamas and Paris .  They read the paper together each morning, and had a hot bath together every night, followed by slow, gentle foot massages.  They only had to look at each other to know what the other was thinking, or at least this is what they liked to believe.

Usually, though, love is more complex than any glance can convey.

Rhonda was also in love with someone else.  She had just started dating Angela, a woman with long legs and fiery eyes and a tall country story to tell.

Rhonda and Angela would drive out to the salty lake and have sex.  They would dance the two-step at a local country bar, Angela pulling Rhonda around the floor until she screamed.  “Darlin’,” Angela said, “I feel the need to yell,” and then she would.  To Rhonda, this was all exotic.  They would then go back to Angela’s place and have sex.  They would kiss in parking lots and movie theaters and restaurants as if no one would ever notice.  They were new to each other and ready for love.

In other words, they each had sex on the brain.

Rhonda and Cheryl also had sex on the brain, but they would not have sex because they were moral girls from moral backgrounds living moral lives.

So much pent up energy, even now it ripples across the page.

They could not stop their intense, mutual staring.  They could not stop looking at each other’s skin, Rhonda’s olive toned, Cheryl’s freckled.  They could not stop looking into each other’s eyes, Rhonda’s large and brown and wanting everything, Cheryl’s mist blue and newly curious.

Their love was kind of evil in a luke-warm way.  Their love was a little adulterous in a non-committal way.  Since their culture was and is a monogamous one, the love between them felt somewhat covert and somewhat exciting and somewhat chaste and somewhat hurtful.  They often tried to ignore the hurtful part of it all, and this wasn’t too hard as long as they focused on the crossing intoxication of each other’s heated gaze.

Romance cures many diseases.

Eczema, for instance.

And joint pain.

And lethargy.

Romance even finds a way to dispel that sense of existential ennui settling deep and spongy into your chest between lungs, heart, and liver.

Rhonda and Cheryl were no strangers to ennui.

Rhonda had once been a Mormon.  When she realized she liked women and their soft and evil-fleshy selves, she became depressed and often did not want to leave her apartment because there were lots and lots of soft, warm females outside, some of whom returned her gaze.

Cheryl’s ennui came from not having looked at herself in a mirror in twenty years because her mother always told her she was plain, and she still believed this even though women and men would often look at her, would often watch her perfect legs walking by, would often want to smell the color of her orange hair.

Rhonda had recently been dumped by her lover of four years, a woman she thought she would be with forever, and though Rhonda wanted the newness of Angela quite badly, she was constantly afraid Angela too would run, back to a man, back to her trailer court country days.

And so Rhonda was often needy.

She often wanted to know things were ok.  She often wanted Angela to look at her with love sick eyes.  She thought if there wasn’t constant romance in the air, things must be dying, and so she wanted to bottle it all up by moving in together.

“Darlin’ you have me,” Angela would tell her.  “But living together is such a big step.”

Cheryl was also needy.  She needed Dawn.  She loved Dawn.  Their life together was envied by many, but they often fought because Dawn wasn’t used to Cheryl having her own friends, like Rhonda, or her own ideas, like Cheryl thinking her identity was fluid.  Fluidity was not something they had agreed upon fifteen years ago.

“You know who you are,” Dawn would say.  “You’re my partner.  You created all this.”  She would point around the living room at the toll painting decorations, at the matching plaid couches, at the tasteful and somewhat original framed prints.

And so, Rhonda and Cheryl had quite a few layers of difficult sadness clogging them up, and thus they spent a lot of time together.

They left work early to go for drives in the country in Cheryl’s convertible, the leaves passing red and yellow and brown over their heads.

They took long lunches and talked about their psyches and the philosophies of the world.

“I’m 40 and I don’t know who I am,” Cheryl would say.  “I am what other people tell me I am.”

“Does the self really even exist?” Rhonda would ask.   “I think you can create whatever self you want, baby.”

“I don’t even know where to begin,” Cheryl would say.

“You’re like a blank slate,” Rhonda would say.  “You could write anything there.  I think it’s exciting.”  Then Rhonda would look at Cheryl until the heat of her freckled shyness made her turn away.

They took long coffee breaks and talked about sex.

“I’ve been wondering what sex with another woman would be like,” Cheryl would say.  “Dawn and I are kind of a little bit predictable.”

“I’ve been told I’m good in bed,” Rhonda would say.  “I think girls who like toys are good in bed.  You should try one.”

“A girl or a toy?” Cheryl would say.

“Both,” Rhonda would say, and Cheryl would giggle.

“One of those books you gave me said dildos were just a fad, just a part of queer politics or something,” Cheryl would say.

“Either way, they feel good,” Rhonda would say, and Cheryl would smile and turn red.

They took walks in the foothills and sat in the sun and watched each other’s mouths move slowly around their words.

They often drank beer.

They often held hands.

After a number of months, they would sometimes smell the different perfumes on their necks and wrists, and they could do this for many minutes, and even longer.

“Your hands are so sensual,” Rhonda would say.  “So delicate.”

“I bet you are good in bed,” Cheryl would say looking out a window, her face heating.

At times, these sorts of exchanges were too frightening for Cheryl, and so she would hit her head against a wall.

“You drive me crazy,” she would tell Rhonda.

Once Cheryl banged her head against her own wall at home, and, naturally, her lover became alarmed.  She called Rhonda because Rhonda was Cheryl’s best friend.

“She’s scaring me,” Dawn said.

Rhonda hung up and looked at Angela.

“There’s an emergency,” she said.

Angela looked concerned and helped Rhonda put her jacket on.

“I love you,” Rhonda said, and then she drove very quickly, and when she arrived, Cheryl was indeed hitting her head against a wall.

Rhonda and Dawn stood there watching for a moment, then they moved forward.

“Don’t touch me,” Cheryl said.

For a while, the two women weren’t sure if they should look at Cheryl or away from Cheryl, but eventually she stopped the pounding, and the wall wasn’t damaged, and after a natural sort of awkwardness, and after Cheryl’s forehead regained its normal color, they all drank Chianti in front of the fire.

A year and many car rides and many lunches and many coffee breaks later, Rhonda and Cheryl were in a park late at night after listening to live music at a bar.

Live music can be intoxicating.

So can stars, and that night they were especially clear even above the city’s thick layers of pollution.

Summer warmth filled the trees.

Rhonda and Cheryl were sitting very, very close.  They could feel each other’s breath.  Warm.  Humid.  They could feel the pull of each other’s cells.  For the last year, they had imagined kissing each other and the smell of each other’s lips and the way they might move their tongues, and they had wondered if it might prove something.

So they finally did it.  They kissed.

Some might think it odd that two healthy women would take so long to get around to this.  A year is a long time to wait, and for only a single kiss no less.  But Rhonda and Cheryl were, and are, odd girls.   They were, and are, girls from conservative backgrounds.  They were once religious girls who believed in the sanctity of singular love.

But their time together was changing them.  Their love meant everything they had learned about love being naturally monogamous was false.  Years ago, they had learned that love being naturally heterosexual was false.  But they didn’t think the basic idea of eternal feelings for only one person had changed.

Well, they were wrong.

And they knew this.

They loved each other and they loved other women.

Cheryl enjoyed kissing Dawn, and relied on her ability to know things.

Rhonda enjoyed kissing Angela, and relied on her ability to spit at the world’s judgments.

And Cheryl and Rhonda enjoyed kissing each other.

But that kind of thing was, and is, just not possible in this culture.

And so, the fabric of their known universes slowly began to unravel.  Threads of uncertainty were pulling in all directions leaving large, breezy, woolen holes all around them.

They began to squint more.

Their vision began to change. 

The sky was no longer a predictable egg-shell blue.  It had varying shades depending on where they looked and when they looked.  It could be baby blue one place, then azure off to the sides, and later cerulean, then almost purple over by the mountains.

They knew this was beauty.  They knew this was complexity, and it frightened them because in their society complexity is not something to be admired.

The people walking by them were also suddenly less benign.  Rhonda and Cheryl knew that if they were thinking about kissing and sex and identity, others would be thinking about all this too.  That man there in the coffee shop reading Chomsky while they ate bagels was really obsessing over his boyfriend not calling.  The woman eating soup a few booths away from them was wishing her husband wanted sex more often.  The cashier counting change into the register was wondering if she should kill herself after work, or on the weekend when her roommates would be gone.

Rhonda and Cheryl could hear the thoughts of the world now.  Their hands began to shake a little more than usual.

Other people’s thoughts can be hard to take.

They saw television differently too.  The sitcoms they would watch at night with their lovers suddenly seemed full of plastic lies about happiness and perfect endings.  As they both sat on their own couches picking at loose upholstery threads, Rhonda and Cheryl knew this meant they were beginning to understand the impossibility of perfection.

They did not tell their lovers about their new vision of themselves or of the universe.

Besides, even with all the mix and pulse of their feelings, even with all their redefinitions of the world, they were still very slow girls, and never really did anything with each other, not really.  Their love was never consummated, and consummation was, and is, in their culture, a key.

If you don’t have sex it’s not really an affair.

At the time, this made Cheryl and Rhonda feel a little less dirty and a little more noble all at once.

Look at the benefits, after all:

·        Intimacy.

·        Touching.

·        Conversation.

·        The excitement of the slightly clandestine.

·        A change from the norm.

·        A lack of sexually transmitted diseases.

·        The ability to tell most of the truth.

·        And no upset lovers.

Much later after they stopped driving and talking and holding hands, Rhonda groaned at the almostness of her love for Cheryl.  Rhonda’s whole life had been filled with almosts, with denial, with Christian morality.  She would later sit wide-eyed and alone in coffee houses, the “only if’s” eating at her daily.  Would Cheryl’s back have been soft under her fingers?  What would Cheryl have sounded like when she came?  Would Cheryl have held her after sex?

And sometimes Cheryl would lie in her bed after Dawn went to work early, and she would stare at the ceiling and think about Rhonda’s juicy lips kissing her neck, about Rhonda’s rich, fat body laying next to her, and Cheryl would want Rhonda there in her bed, warm and large against her, but her mind was shy, so instead of imagining more, she would get up and drink coffee, cup after cup.  She would look out the window at the neighbor’s wall and wish she hadn’t given up smoking.

Often Rhonda wished she had been more pro-active.

Often Cheryl wished she had been more pro-active.

In the park that night under the stars, under the warm, summer leaves, Rhonda should have continued kissing Cheryl even when Cheryl began to cry.

But, wait.

That isn’t what they wanted.

Cheryl was crying.  She loved Dawn and was afraid of losing her.

Rhonda couldn’t continue.  She loved Cheryl, and she loved Angela, and didn’t want to hurt either of them.  And so she stopped.

Cheryl loved Rhonda and didn’t want to hurt her.

They breathed under the park trees for a while.

They breathed until the stars shifted a few inches.

They thought they were afraid of vengeful lovers and messy break ups.

But really, they both knew that if they continued to push the boundaries of their love, the fabric of their universes would become unrecognizable.  It’s about fear, really, a fear of change in a world that doesn’t want to believe in impermanence.  They simply knew that going further would have expanded their lungs until there was no longer room for any more fresh oxygen.

After a breathing rest in the park, and a week without contact, they ran into each other in the bathroom at work.

They looked into each other’s eyes.

They hugged slow and hard and kissed each other’s necks.

And so, their love continued for a while longer.

But, really, the sex drive, the universe issue, it was all too much.

Besides, their lovers were getting suspicious.

“You spend a lot of time with Rhonda,” Dawn would say.  “Is she in love with you?”

“You and Cheryl are sure damn close,” Angela would say.  “Are you in love with her?”

And so, eventually they broke it off.

Actually, Cheryl forced herself to become merely friendly.  She didn’t want to hurt Dawn or Angela.  She didn’t want to tempt Rhonda any more.  But Rhonda couldn’t handle the distant cool of Cheryl’s retreat, and so, she stopped talking altogether.

Months passed.

Rhonda’s and Cheryl’s vision began to soften again.

Rhonda would look at Angela in her kitchen all tall and winking, a study in clean beiges, and she would smile and feel lust and even love, but always she would think at least a little bit about Cheryl. 

And Cheryl would look at Dawn as she aged, her skin still smooth, her hair streaking white, her reading glasses thicker, and they would drink wine and smile, and it was comfortable, and Cheryl would know they were meant to be, but always she too would think at least a little bit about Rhonda.

Cheryl and Rhonda tried to tell themselves this was normal.

Time heals.

Love passes.

Springtime blooms eternal again, or something like that.

Besides, it wasn’t really an affair, so what were they pining over?

Yes, it must have been the altitude.  This is the high desert, you know, and people often get nose bleeds.

A year passed.

Rhonda liked to think things were getting calmer, but she kept noticing Cheryl at work.  Of course Rhonda still had feelings, lots of feelings, and they would especially surge when she stopped for long enough to notice Cheryl’s orange hair or lipless mouth across a room during meetings, or passing in the hallways.  Such a passionless little slit Cheryl’s mouth was, at least on the surface, but quite powerful to kiss and bend to.

And Cheryl too thought things were calmer, but she also kept noticing Rhonda and her fat, frowning body at work.  After the occasional encounter where Cheryl would try to ask about Angela or the latest book Rhonda was reading, Rhonda would scowl a little, and give only quick, half answers, never looking right at her, and it was awkward, but Cheryl was skilled at hiding her feelings.  She would smile somewhat blankly, but politely, then go back to her office and close her eyes.  Losing Rhonda’s attentiveness, losing the way she could see into Cheryl’s red, frightened soul, was almost too much.  Her hands wanted to move, wanted to do something, but there was nothing for them to do.

Besides, wasn’t it better this way?

That’s what people like to think.

Even you would probably agree because you are from a similar, singular-thinking society for which you cannot be faulted.

After talking to Cheryl, Rhonda would go back to her office and shake.  She hoped Cheryl’s cool was a lie.  She thought she could still feel Cheryl’s need, her curiosity, her sadness, entering in from each of her cells.  At night, Rhonda would lie close to the new shininess of Angela with her sexy, long, warm torso, but Rhonda would still have dreams about Cheryl, dreams where Cheryl would hug her and slowly say, “I love you, Rhonda,” into her ear.  Humid, warm breath.  In the morning, Rhonda would wake up wide-eyed sensing Cheryl’s closeness, but knowing she was far away.

And so, in order to get rid of their demons, they enrolled in community education classes.

Rhonda enrolled in a pottery class.

Cheryl enrolled in a painting class.

Making arts and crafts can often stabilize the sadness of a broken heart.

Rhonda and Cheryl knew this because they had been taught all their lives that making things with their hands was the best way for a woman to give of her gifts, and giving meant feeling better.  Don’t hide your talent under a bushel, they had always been told.  Besides, if a girl can make pretty things, she’s sure to find love.  Rhonda and Cheryl gave a lot of handmade gifts to pretty girls when they were growing up.  The girls never knew what to do with the doilies and lacy bible covers and toll-painted jewelry boxes because they already had many of their own.

Still, it was all in the act and the thought.

And knowing this, and that something new would calm her mind, Cheryl went to the college and sat at an easel and painted many pictures of cacti and mountains and water running in streams.  Cheryl needed the calming vistas, the sound of the water in her paint, and it did help her think less about Rhonda’s cheekbones, and it did almost help her forget the way Rhonda would reach up into the air when they drove under the colors of the world in her convertible.  Besides, no one would ever look at one of her paintings and see Rhonda.  Safety was important for Cheryl.  She liked stability.  She never wanted anyone to find out about the possibility of her more colorful feelings for a woman who wasn’t her wife.

But if you were observant, you would see rich and needy hues in Cheryl’s paint, a higher level of midnight blue, a more piercing quality to her Kentucky greens than the other students were using, and you would know that nothing between lovers can ever really be hidden or simple.

But Dawn had lived with Cheryl for so long, she simply couldn’t see these things any more.  When couples live together that long, they begin to blend into the wallpaper.  Dawn was just happy Cheryl was doing something.

“These are lovely, bunny,” Dawn would say.  “I’m so glad you’re pursuing your talents.”

They framed a few, and put them next to the other pleasant paintings in their house.

Rhonda also knew she had to create, and she knew that creating had to involve her hands because it was in her fingers that she most missed Cheryl.  So she went to the dusty room on the west side of town, and sat there in front of a spinning wheel making pots, strange pots.  She didn’t seem to want calming creations.  The clay’s oddness helped her offset the deep haunting she felt from the absence of Cheryl’s thin wrists and slow-moving voice.  The clay helped her notice less and less the long, empty expanses she felt when she was sleeping.  The violence in her pottery helped her push her passion somewhere else, or at least to remember that she still had passion that needed pushing because it was no longer being expressed in Cheryl’s mouth or inside the fantasy of Cheryl’s thighs.

Cheryl had such nice thighs too.

But this isn’t that kind of story.

And so Rhonda cut into clay, and pulled it, and pinched it thin, and let it crack and cave, and the clay cut back at her, scraping her fingers’ cells into the grit.

While other people were making tea cups and cereal bowls, Rhonda was making clay look like ripped skin.

At work, she looked at Cheryl less and less.

She began to feel a little better.

And Cheryl began to feel Rhonda’s increasing calm.  Rhonda’s lightness floated to her over the conference table during meetings.  It made Cheryl feel a little invisible.  It made Cheryl feel a little more longing.  But the more she painted calm noon landscapes and pungent sagebrush, the less she knew how to speak, and so she couldn’t, and so she didn’t.

More time passed.

Then it was Christmas.

Cheryl and Dawn had a party, and they invited everyone over.

Rhonda listened to Cheryl’s voice on the machine.

“We’re having a party at 7.  Please come.”

Did Cheryl’s intonation move a litter harder, a little more desperately, over the “please”?

Cheryl didn’t think so, or she tried not to make it sound desperate.  But she knew it might have sounded a little more hopeful than she wanted.  But not too hopeful.  Just hopeful enough.

Rhonda replayed the message many times.  She heard the softness of Cheryl’s lipless mouth, and so began to feel bad for their mutual silence.  She looked at her pots that night, newly fired, and decided she would give Cheryl a vase she had made.

Cheryl was already planning to give Rhonda a painting of a cactus because Rhonda liked cacti, and because cacti were plain and thorny and dry, and this is how Cheryl saw herself sometimes.  She didn’t want Rhonda to forget her.

They both tried to think the desire for gift giving was a mere token of congenial affection, of holiday cheer.

But Cheryl knew her gift would really be an apology for pulling away.  She hoped the painting would bring them a little closer again.

Well, not too close because that’s too hard.  But a little closer.

Or at least she thought they could become less awkward, though she still sometimes wanted to touch Rhonda’s beautiful lips with her fingers.  But that’s not what this gift would be about.  It was all above board.  It was all sanitized.  Cheryl moved her palms over the dry paint, moved her face in close to the canvas so she could smell it.  Wood and oil and dusty air.  Sometimes Rhonda smelled like that, only lighter, more soapy and fleshy and mitochondrial.

Cheryl closed her eyes.

It was just a desert scene, for God’s sake.

Yet there was that feeling of tapering lust in the sharp, oily, olive greens of her cacti.  And Cheryl did want Rhonda to see this.  But she didn’t want Rhonda to act on it.  She wanted Rhonda to appreciate her time, her vivid colors, and feel a little loved.  But not too loved.

Yes, Cheryl’s search for ambivalence was rather complex.

Rhonda, though, was still angry, and that’s why her pots were angry.  Though she too didn’t want Cheryl to forget her, Rhonda’s gift would be more an act of purging.  In spite of her Christian background, Rhonda was having voodoo thoughts.  After all, Rhonda should be completely over it all by now, and since she wasn’t, even with all the sitting and crafting and coffee drinking, it must be because Cheryl gave off juju love energy.  Only something supernatural could erase this.  The scraping of Rhonda’s skin as she pushed into the clay, the fire of the kiln, the smell of burned flesh and earth, all this seemed to give a supernatural quality to Rhonda’s pots, or so she liked to think.

Rhonda’s pots did emanate a certain energy.

She picked up a vase.  It was heavy.  It was rather strange with odd asymmetrical cuts on top, and some accidental iridescence for its glaze.  The pot felt warm in her hands.  Its lips seemed to be speaking.  Its lips were her lips, she though, speaking always her love for Cheryl. 

“Mist blue eyes,” the pot said.

Rhonda put the pot down.

Was she momentarily a victim of the gothic romance novels she read as a child?

She looked around the room at the other potters.  No one was looking at her.  No one seemed to hear anything strange from anyone’s lips.  She felt a measure of relief.  She felt a little insane.

But she sighed and so do we because everyone knows it’s not strange to feel insane when it comes to love.

A few weeks later it was Christmas.  Santas and elves and sweating mothers were everywhere spreading joy.

The earth moved on its axis.

Snow fell in the upper hemisphere.

People surfed in the lower hemisphere.

Cheryl and Dawn’s party started.

Cheryl took a while to get ready.  She had the perfect holiday hors d’oeu-vres, and the perfect holiday decorations, but she couldn’t decide what to wear.  The black jeans that made her look sexy?  The blue jeans that let everyone know how comfortable she was?  She wore the black jeans, but with a sweatshirt so no one would think something was up because nothing was up, everything was on the up and up, no one had had an affair, and so the world was still normal.

People came from all over the city, and they drank wine, and they ate red and green cake, and they talked and laughed.  They commented on Cheryl’s decorating tastes.  They asked how life and love were knowing they would hear the calming details of long-term dedication.

“My little bunny’s been painting,” Dawn told them, showing everyone her lover’s art.

Cheryl smiled, but also kept trying not to glance at the door.  Rhonda was late.  Rhonda wasn’t coming.  Rhonda was still angry.  Cheryl suddenly wanted to kiss Rhonda, if only she would arrive.

Eventually, Rhonda and Angela did arrive, a little later than fashionable because of all the anticipated awkwardnesses, and because Rhonda also couldn’t decide what to wear.

“You look beautiful, darlin’,” Angela kept saying, but Rhonda kept changing her mind.  Should she wear the black turtleneck that made her look a little thinner and mysterious?  Should she wear the button shirt to show off her cleavage?  Eventually she chose the button shirt, but didn’t unbutton it very low, and a pair of black pants for at least a little mystery.

She and Angela arrived holding hands.

Everyone who knew Rhonda hugged her.  They squeezed Angela’s long arm.  They were all happy Rhonda had found her own true monogamous love.  It made the world feel just a little bit safer.  It made the world seem just a little bit more reasonable.  Dawn handed them both a piece of cake.  Her smile at Rhonda was somewhat stilted, but Rhonda was used to that.  Angela barely gave Cheryl a glance, but Cheryl was used to that.

Lovers never forget.

But that wasn’t what Rhonda and Cheryl were really concerned about.

Rhonda wondered when she should give Cheryl her pot.

Cheryl wondered when she should give Rhonda her painting.

There don’t seem to be rules for these things.

How do you give a gift of reconciliation and purging to someone you’ve almost had an affair with after years of awkwardness, when everyone’s watching, when no one else is giving gifts?

It’s quite the etiquette dilemma.

Cheryl walked by, trying not to look at Rhonda, trying not to think about her momentary desire to kiss.

Rhonda coughed a little, and Cheryl turned.  She kissed Rhonda lightly on the lips, and, for once, it was Rhonda who turned red.  It was Rhonda who got flustered.

“Here, have this, it’s for you,” Rhonda said quickly.  Immediately, she knew she had made a mistake.  The impossible decorum of the whole situation really would only allow a discrete exchange in a back room, but Rhonda couldn’t wait.  She had always had a certain impatience about her.  She always enjoyed flouting the manners her mother tried to teach her.  And she had always been a nerd.  So she held the pot out oddly, and everyone was drinking spiked eggnog, and everyone kind of looked up, and everyone began to wonder in ways they hadn’t wondered before.

“A pot?”



“No, way.”

“That’s silly.”

“Never in a million years.”

“Not them.”

Cheryl took the pot even though there were implications in doing so, even though people were wondering, and she knew they were wondering, and so she laughed and was gracious, very gracious, and almost manically offered everyone olives and pickles and Christmas cookies, all the little treats that get left until the end of a party.  Cheryl put the pot on the food table and forced herself not to look at it, but she wanted to, she wanted to take it back into her bedroom and touch it.  She wanted to take Rhonda back into her bedroom and touch her or at least look into her eyes again.  Cheryl suddenly wanted to feel something, anything, that had even a little cerulean in it.

Instead, she took Dawn’s hand, and Dawn let her, but only for a moment, for the requisite instant it takes to make everyone know everything is Ok.

As Cheryl slowly put the pot on the table, Rhonda could feel something warm against her shoulder, a burning sensation even, a little prickling voodoo perhaps, as if Cheryl’s juju fingers were brushing against her, but the feeling went away quickly, and the pot sat cooling next to the paper plates.  

Throughout the night, in the midst of conversations about vacations and jobs and politics, Rhonda kept looking around the house in an attempt at nonchalance.  She looked at the other guest’s shoes.  She looked at the books on the shelves.  She noticed that some of the paintings on the walls were new, were more than merely tasteful, especially the ones with water scenes and cacti.  She could see rich olive tones and dusty purple in both rivers and succulents.

She could see again.

But she was distracted by her own vase.  She kept looking at it.  It was an interesting pot.  Would Cheryl appreciate it sufficiently?  But how could she?  Surely the pot was now a symbol of something having happened that wasn’t exactly above board.  The pot would probably go into a back room wedged somewhere behind family photos.  Or maybe Cheryl’s lover would smash it later that night in the kind of jealous rage Rhonda kept hearing about but had never experienced.  Maybe Cheryl would look at it when Dawn was away at work.  Maybe she would touch it and know there was something too sensual in its dips and curves.  Cheryl might even hear it speaking, and this would frighten her as it might frighten anyone, but it would frighten her even more to know that Rhonda still wanted her, and that just couldn’t be.  So Cheryl would drive to Utah Lake where the fish are radiation-yellow, and she would throw the pot into the water’s murkiness trying not to think too hard about anything, but of course she would think about everything like Rhonda’s eyes, and Rhonda’s fingertips moving over the clay.  Cheryl would then try not to imagine the yellow fish nibbling on the strange vase as it nestled into the silt.  She would drive back home trying not to feel bad that her only physical link to Rhonda was disintegrating in polluted water.

But wait.

Rhonda’s and Cheryl’s imaginations must have run off by themselves for a moment distracting us from our chronology.

So at the party some of the guests were leaving, and others sat on couches.  The faux pas of the gift was fading, though Dawn laughed at jokes a little louder than usual, and Angela was a little more quiet, her eyes looking almost fierce, and Rhonda and Cheryl were doubly concerned that they not look at each other except accidentally.  Cheryl drank wine.  Rhonda drank eggnog and wine and bourbon straight up.  They both laughed at the right moments.  They said, “Oh,” and “Wow,” and “God,” in sync with the narratives being told.  But of course they were really cataloguing every line around each other’s mouths, every little smiling movement of the lips, every darting word that came out of their uncertain throats.  They hadn’t seen each other this closely for so long.  They both seemed suddenly new and strange.  Their cheeks were red and suddenly beautiful.

Cheryl still wanted to give Rhonda the painting, but even taking Rhonda into a back room would look suspicious now, would look too in need of privacy, and she knew Dawn would notice.  She knew Dawn was watching everything closely in her casual-but-highly-observant way.  She knew Dawn would later complain about Rhonda’s idiocy, and wonder aloud how Cheryl could have ever been her friend.  And Cheryl would reassure her, and agree with her, and kiss her lightly before bed, but here and there through the night, she would dream of Rhonda.

So for now, Cheryl just sat and listened and talked and stared at Rhonda from the edges of her eyesight.

As the minutes passed, Rhonda began to feel stupid for her gift as if she were still a teenager giving doilies to straight girls.  And Cheryl had nothing for her, which made Rhonda seem doubly desperate, and she began to think everyone saw her desperation, and so she began to want the pot back.  Her cells were baked into the clay and throbbing.  But she knew it would look quite strange to try and remove the vase now after everyone had seen, and so she gulped her wine. 

If only she had worn a large sweater in anticipation of the need to take her gift back.

If she had been smarter, she could have just walked to the table, chewed on a few olives, then casually put the pot under her large, large sweater and left through the garage.

It could work.

She could have said, “I need some water or air or something important, like a life,” as an excuse to go outside and put the pot in her car.

Rhonda looked at the pot.

Rhonda was in a tight shirt, but she still squeezed Angela’s fingers and said, “I think you need some olives.”  Angela did not like parties much, and did not like all the unspoken energies in the room, and so she glared at Rhonda as she walked toward the hors d’oeu-vres.  Rhonda ate a piece of cheese.  She ate another piece of cheese.  She touched the rim of her pot.

Dawn came up to Rhonda, offered her a red cookie.

“Pottery seems like an interesting hobby,” Dawn said.

“Yes, a good way to pass the time,” Rhonda said.

“Cheryl likes her hobbies too,” Dawn said. 

“It’s important to have hobbies,” Rhonda said.

“Cheryl decorated our home.  She’s very talented,” Dawn said.

“Yes, it’s a very nice home,” Rhonda said.  “Full of talent and pictures and other nice things.”

They looked at each other thinking, “She knows everything,” as they both smiled half way, never the two to give each other much energy because, of course, they were both crazy in love with a woman who could hardly move through a world of blacks and whites.

Dawn and Rhonda looked at each other.

If something dramatic happened right then, it would be a signal that Cheryl and Rhonda had been real.

Rhonda breathed.

Dawn breathed.

They thought about all the teenage movies they had seen when they were young.  All the cat fights.  The girls pulling earrings off other girls.  The biting.  The nails scratching.  The ripping of shirts and pulling of bras.  The high-pitched screaming.  The boys watching with erections.

But Dawn and Rhonda were middle aged.

They looked at each other.

They noticed the lines around each other’s eyes.

They noticed each other’s smooth cheeks and wavy hair and large breasts and strong hands, Dawn’s more tapered, Rhonda’s more muscular.

They noticed the warmth coming off each other’s skin, their bodies radiating wine and uncertainty and a little bit of, well, can we say, eroticism.

Their eyes got a little big.

“I need to smoke,” Rhonda said, though she never smoked, couldn’t even inhale, and everyone knew this, and though she didn’t have cigarettes to smoke, she still said, “I’m jonesin’ for one,” and everyone was drunk enough that they didn’t really notice except Angela, who was a smoker, and who looked at little hard at Rhonda.

Dawn looked a little hard at Rhonda.  She knew Cheryl loved Rhonda for the mess of her emotions, for her color and awkwardness, for things Dawn would never want to be.  Sometimes she wanted to tell Cheryl it was ok to have feelings for other women, but Dawn understood the rules of her culture better than anyone, and her role was to be jealous and guarding, and so, she did her duty.

Cheryl also looked a little hard at Rhonda.  She wanted to follow her outside to smoke because Cheryl had been a smoker, and she desperately wanted a hit of nicotine, and she almost as desperately wanted to feel Rhonda’s warmth close to her.  Cheryl wanted to stand next to Rhonda so Rhonda would know she cared.  But it might not look right.  Besides, Angela was getting up to follow Rhonda outside.

Cheryl touched Angela’s arm.  “I hope you’re having a nice time,” she said.

Angela looked at her and thought about the things she could say, like “If you fuck with my girlfriend, I’m going to two-step all over your freckled, farmer’s face.”  But Angela could be a girl with manners, and so she said, “Yes, you have a very nice home.  Thank you for inviting me.”

Rhonda opened the door to the night air.  It was cold.  Her tits froze.  She began to feel a little better.  Angela came out and stood next to her, took out her cigarettes, lit two and passed one to Rhonda.

“Thank you, honey,” Rhonda said.  She inhaled, and then coughed and coughed.

“I know you’re in love,” Angela said.  “I understand, though.  I do.  You’ve known Cheryl longer than me.  You can’t really stop your feelings.  I know that.”

Rhonda swallowed.  “I love you,” she said, and she meant it because Angela was tall and sexy and relatively wise.

They went back inside.  Angela went to the bathroom.  Rhonda went into the kitchen to get a glass of water.

“I know what you want to do,” Cheryl said behind her.  “Please don’t take your pot back.”

“I feel embarrassed,” Rhonda said.

“I love your pot,” Cheryl said.  She moved close to Rhonda’s ear.  She wanted to speak, and so she did.  “I can feel you in it.”

Rhonda turned to look at Cheryl.

They looked at each other for a moment like they once used to.

Then Cheryl walked away.

Rhonda’s ear burned for a while.

The water ran in the sink.

Then all the guests left.

Rhonda and Angela left and smoked in the car on the way home.

Cheryl and Dawn cleaned without talking.

And for a little while longer, the universe stayed unchanged. 



Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2003