Lisa bussed the last dirty table in the student cafe with a huge sigh of relief. The midnight rush had come and gone, and there was only half an hour to closing. The last few customers scattered around the place all had the haunted look of grad students, and all they wanted was coffee. She'd started as a barista and had no doubt that she could manage by herself until the place shut down.
"Lisa?" A woman's voice, soft with a slight accent, called out behind her. "Lisa Simpson? Is that you?"
Lisa dumped the last set of dishes in the plastic tub, and turned around to look. The woman behind her had short dark hair, tinged bright red at the tips, and "I'm fucking serious" glasses. She wore an oversized black shirt and jeans, and she was staring at Lisa like she might suddenly vanish.
Lisa nodded at her, and picked up the tub of dishes. "Yeah, I'm Lisa." She brushed past the woman on her way to the kitchen. "Give me a second, and I'll get your coffee."
The woman said something, but Lisa couldn't tell what it was over the sound of the dishes rattling around together. She set the plates and cups into the dishwasher, and then washed her hands in the large commercial sink. Drying them off, she headed back out to the coffee counter, and found the woman sitting on one of the stools waiting for her.
"We close at eleven," she said. "What can I get for you?"
"Uhm, how about a soy chai?" The woman was staring down at the counter with an intent expression, which was weird, because there wasn't a book, laptop, or cell there. "No water, please."
"Excellent choice." Lisa reached down and grabbed the vanilla soy milk from the refrigerator, along with the box of Oregon chai. "It's my favorite, too."
The woman looked up finally, and flashed Lisa a smile. "I thought it might be."
Something about her voice made Lisa really look at her as the soy milk steamed, and her jaw dropped. "Juliet? Juliet Hobbes?"
"So you do remember me." This smile was brighter than the one before.
"I'd never forget my best friend." About a hundred different thoughts dashed through Lisa's mind: memories of the two of them singing along to Lisa's My-pod, of dancing together among the sprinklers while pretending they were Queens of Equalia, and writing together, always writing, building up the world that took over their lives.
She tried not to think about how it ended, and how Juliet had vanished from her life; she never even got back to her after Lisa tried to contact her when their book had been rejected. That part still sorta stung; she'd thought they'd been so close. "So what are you doing here, anyway? I thought you'd attend Springfield University, since that's where your dad teaches."
Juliet visibly shuddered. "Too close to home. Too close to Dad. I ended up moving in with my aunt after he forbade me to play anything by Josh Groban." She looked away and twisted the ends of her hair.
Lisa didn't recognize the rather nervous-looking mannerism. Juliet had been a brick of confidence when they were younger, even when she was losing her grip on reality.
Juliet sighed and looked back at her. "We worked it out eventually, but I still think he's a dick."
Lisa blinked. "I'm sorry." She'd never heard Juliet say anything like that.
"It was a long time ago, and we both spent time in counseling over it." She shrugged. "What about you? What brings you here?"
"I got a scholarship," Lisa said. "Environmental Science."
"I would have thought you'd gone for English or Women's Studies."
She always felt odd when she talked about her major, and why she chose it. Lisa looked down at the counter, and scrubbed at one of the scratches in the finish. "When the nuclear plant shut down, there were some scholarships set up for Springfield students going into environmental science, and...well, college isn't cheap, and it's not like I had a trust fund to pay for all this." She lifted her gaze to look at Juliet. "What about you? English or Women's Studies?"
"Women's Studies, yes." Juliet nodded, her glasses shaking slightly. "I thought about English, but I never wanted to live in my father's shadow, to major in anything that had even a tangential relationship to him. And since he's the world's foremost John Grisham scholar, a degree related to any type of literature was off my list." She looked just as strong and passionate as she had braving her dad back in school. "I do edit the Women's Studies newsletter, but that's as close as I come."
"Too bad. You were a good writer."
"So were you," Juliet said wistfully. "You ever write anything after we broke up?"
"Other than term papers?" Lisa shook her head. "No."
"Such a waste." Juliet's gaze sent small tingles up and down Lisa's spine, and she suddenly felt flushed. Her mouth was dry, and she licked her lips to moisten them; she could see Juliet's gaze focus on her mouth, and felt both excited and suddenly uncomfortable, like the air between them was charged with a bunch of ion particles. She glanced away quickly, breaking the moment, and caught sight of the clock on the wall.
"Listen, I have to close shop," Lisa said. "Here's my number." She sent her contact information over to Juliet's phone. "I work mostly weekend nights, because the work study money is better. But I've got afternoons off, if you want to do something."
"Oh, that would be excellent!" Juliet scooted off her chair, then quickly turned and squeezed Lisa's arm. "It's really good to see you again."
"Yeah. Uh, likewise." Lisa gave a little wave, then went around and told the rest of the customers that it was time to go. She finished up just as the cleaning crew was coming in, and let Jacob yell at her about biking alone at night (again) before heading out to her apartment.
The cold wind on her cheeks woke her up, and she enjoyed the quiet of the campus parkway at this time of night. Her lamp shone brightly, and she knew all the pot holes well enough to avoid them on the short ride. Finally, she barreled on through the intersection at Fifteenth Street since there was no one around, and made it home.
She picked up her bike and climbed the stairway to the second floor of the old 1960s complex, and took it into the living room with her. After living with Bart, she preferred to keep her primary mode of transportation where she could see it.
Feeling restless, she showered, pulled on her comfy flannel robe, then poured herself a bowl of organic shredded wheat with soy milk, but even that little treat couldn't quiet her nerves. Juliet Hobbes. Wow. It just didn't seem real.
Sipping the last of the milk, Lisa rinsed out the bowl and left it sitting in the sink as she headed to the storage closet where she kept everything that her mom had given her since arriving at college.
Sure enough, under the sheet music, dolls, spare blankets, and a space-age popcorn maker, she found the box that she was looking for. She'd packed this one up specially, back when Maggie was talking about all the changes that she was going to make to Lisa's old room, once she had it to herself.
The box was still tied with at least a yard of string, and somewhere along the way, it had turned a dingy yellow. The composition books lay on the top, and Lisa gently took out the first one. Its lettering faded, Tales of Equalia barely legible. Lisa traced her hand over Juliet's name and shook her head. Hard to believe they'd been so productive.
The writing inside of the book was too smeared and faded to read, but that really didn't matter. She'd kept a copy of the draft she'd sent to the editor, when she'd submitted Tales for publishing. Under all of the composition books, the copy was still clean and sharp; she'd spent extra money to get it printed out on acid-free paper. She'd been so sure that the book would be accepted, and she and Juliet would go on to be famous writers, sharing a mansion and a huge estate. They would have been inseparable.
She smoothed her hand over the text and frowned. It hadn't turned out like that, had it? The stories had taken over their lives. She'd wanted to spend every moment possible with Juliet, pretending to be the co-Queens of Equalia, but it wasn't sustainable. She couldn't live in a fantasy world, and in the end, Juliet had preferred Equalia to Lisa. Lisa had tried to get the book published, to make the fantasy real, but it hadn't worked out; apparently publishers were well stocked with stories about the fantasy wish fulfillment lives of pre-teen girls.
Maybe if they'd written about vampires instead of Two-nicorns it would have worked out.
She finally closed up the box and put it away without looking at anything they'd written. She wasn't sure she was ready to read between the lines just yet, and see what Tales of Equalia said about her, or about Juliet.
Lisa was in the middle of studying--it felt like she was always in the middle of studying--when her phone rang. "Sweet peas and potatoes, procrastination, yes!" She didn't care who it was, as long as they talked for awhile. "Hello?"
"Lisa?" Juliet's image waved at her from the view screen.
"Hey, Juliet. What's up?"
"Not much. I was thinking about going to the craft fair at the hub this weekend. You wanna go?" She was wearing her brave smile, the one she wore when they were both caged up in the abandoned restaurant; Lisa could still feel the press of their hands together as they held on to one another.
Lisa took a deep breath, her heart racing. She knew she shouldn't -- she had the damn test to study for after all--but she wanted to see Juliet again. "I'd love to. Tomorrow's better for me, though."
"Do you want to meet for lunch, then hit the fair?"
"Sure. Meet at the Three Sisters at noon? We can walk to the hub."
Juliet's smile was like neon, and Lisa knew she was smiling just as bright. "It's a date."
Lisa hadn't paid this much attention to her appearance in years. She even left the house a little early, so she had time to comb her hair once she got her helmet off. The bike rack at the restaurant was well-used, so she wouldn't worry about leaving her bike locked up while she and Juliet went shopping.
She clicked on the heavy U-lock and converted her saddlebag to a backpack, then zipped the helmet into its special pocket on the back. She ran her hand through her hair to try and fluff it up a bit, then pressed it back down again, afraid that it'd gotten too fluffy. Running a hand over her sweater, she made sure it lay straight, glad that the restaurant was close enough that she hadn't had time to work up a sweat.
The prep was worth it. Juliet was waiting for her the moment that Lisa stepped inside, and waved her over to their table. There was a bike-and-helmet bag sitting next to her on the bench, which made Lisa smile. The two of them had used their bikes to go everywhere in Springfield. It was great to see that cycling was still something they had in common. She slung her own pack onto the bench across from Juliet, then plucked Juliet's bag from the bench and plopped it next to her own, and slid into the now-open seat next to Juliet. "Easier to chat this way."
Juliet grinned back at her, hips and shoulders pressing against hers. "Much more intimate, I agree."
They ordered some bruschetta to start, and Lisa had a bowl of the Hungarian mushroom soup while Juliet chose the red pepper flatbread with a mixed green salad. It didn't take long before it felt like no time at all had passed.
The craft fair wasn't exactly an authentic folkart festival, but it was nice to be out in the fall air. She and Juliet still had a lot in common, including their politics. They both loved the quilts and the willow rockers, the hand-knitted sweaters and hats, the handmade soaps, and the edibles: fresh baked pies and kettle corn.
And they both thought there was too much jewelry.
Juliet sorted through a pile of soft cotton hats, and pulled out a green one with a crocheted rose. "Here," she said, turning to Lisa. "Try this."
"Don't you want to see what it looks like on you?" Nevertheless, Lisa put on the hat, which for once was large enough to fit comfortably over her hair. "So, what's it like?"
"It looks good on you, except--" She reached up and tucked some of Lisa's hair under the hat. "That's better. Would you wear something like that?"
"Maybe. If it was cold, or I had a bad case of helmet hair."
"Okay, then." Juliet took out her wallet and handed her debit card to the woman running the booth. "We'll take it."
"You don't have to buy me a hat!"
Juliet shrugged. "You bought me kettle corn. I call us even." The lady handed Juliet the charge pad, so Juliet could input her pin. "Besides, you look good in it. You deserve a good hat."
Something warm and happy curled up in Lisa's tummy as Juliet looked at her. Lisa ran her hand over Juliet's arm, and squeezed her hand. "Thanks."
"I'm really glad we found each other again."
Lisa nodded, her entire body tingling and energized from being with Juliet again. "Me too."
The craft fair was just the start. The next weekend, Juliet asked Lisa if she wanted to see a matinee of "Lies and Damages" together. The week after that, Juliet called to say she was going to a lecture on women's healthcare in Africa, and asked Lisa if she wanted to come along. Juliet started stopping by the student cafe on Friday nights as well, chatting with Lisa whenever she got her breaks.
Lisa wasn't sure if she was being stalked, or if they were dating. Either way, she felt happier than she had in a long time. It was just nice to be with someone who got her, who understood where she was coming from, and she tried to explain to her mom what was so special about it.
"I'm really glad for you, honey," Lisa's mom said in their Sunday morning phone call. "But are you sure she's all right? It all seems so fast. Are you seeing anyone besides Juliet?"
"Juliet's fine, mom. She doesn't make up stories anymore. She's really concerned about the world at large."
Her mom's mouth went tight on the viewscreen. "Well, if you're sure. I don't want to see my little girl getting hurt."
"I'll be fine, mom. I can look after myself." It was an old argument.
"I know you can, honey. I love you."
"Love you too, mom." Lisa punched the button to sever the connection, and leaned back in her chair with a heartfelt sigh. Maybe her mom was right. Maybe things were going too fast. Juliet was always around, always calling up Lisa to invite her out someplace or just to chat. Maybe they were spending too much time together and getting too involved in each others' lives.
Maybe they were creating a fantasy world, but without the fantasy setting.
Scrubbing her face with her hands, she got up to pour herself another cup of coffee. She needed to talk to Juliet, find out what was going on with her. Which sounded ugly, no matter how she looked at it.
Instead of calling, though, she started a crockpot full of her favorite brown rice, sweet pepper, and asparagus casserole, which would be ready in the early afternoon. She frowned hard at the casserole, as if it was the food's fault that there was more than enough for two.
Mentally throwing up her hands, Lisa finally put through the call, and Juliet quickly agreed to come by for lunch.
"What should I bring?" Juliet asked.
"You don't have to bring me something to make me want to see you. I like you regardless."
Juliet rolled her eyes. "Some of us were brought up to be polite."
"You didn't have Bart Simpson as a brother."
"I am extremely grateful for that every day of my existence, did I mention that?"
Lisa broke out in a grin. "See you around two, then."
"See you!" Juliet replied, and broke off the connection.
Lisa closed her eyes and laid her head down on the desk. She was so doomed.
When Juliet showed up, she handed Lisa a single Almond Joy. "I couldn't come over empty-handed."
Lisa smiled and set the candy bar on the coffee table. It was what she'd brought for their first playdate together, and she was both pleased and flattered that Juliet had remembered. "How'd you remember this?"
"Honestly?" Juliet settled herself on the couch. "I kept a diary. I reread some of it after I saw you at the cafe, and that was in the part that I could stand reading."
"Sounds like me with Tales of Equalia."
Juliet stiffened, and her eyes got wide. "You kept the stories?"
"Of course I did. Why wouldn't I?"
"I don't know. I just thought..." She rubbed her hand back and forth in the air a couple of times, like she was using an eraser on a chalkboard. "Do you have them? Could I see them?"
Lisa felt like a total idiot. Of course she should have invited Juliet over before this. She should have mentioned the stories earlier, back when she first thought about it. "Sure. Let me grab them. I have to warn you though, it's no wonder they were rejected. They were total wish fulfillment."
"It's okay, really. I'd love to read them again."
Lisa dashed back to the storage room and picked up the box, setting it on the coffee table for Juliet to open. "Here. I'll get lunch while you take a look."
Juliet sank into silence while Lisa dished up the casserole, and poured them each a glass of wine. She glanced at the table, then carried everything into the living room, so they could eat on the couch. Juliet looked completely enraptured by the stories, and didn't notice Lisa at first, her eyes quickly tracking over the paper. Then she looked up and a brilliant smile took over her face, like Lisa had just handed her the best Christmas present ever. "Thank you for keeping this."
"I'd never give it away." She sat down next to Juliet, and they read through the stories together, skipping over the truly embarrassing ones. As they read and ate and talked, Lisa realized how fond she was of her younger self, and how much she treasured that part of her life. No matter how crazy things got, or what happened, she never doubted that her family cared for her.
She couldn't say the same for Juliet.
"It was my way to escape." Juliet sighed and closed the box. "Without the stories, I was lost. I didn't know who I was or where I fit in the world. And I didn't know how to tell you how much I liked you and what you meant to me." She looked at Lisa and smiled sadly. "It took me a few more years to figure out I was a lesbian."
"Oh." Lisa took a deep breath and let it out slowly. That explained so much. "Was that--" Lisa wasn't sure how to put it.
"Why I went to live with my aunt?" She pushed her glasses up her nose. "That was a part of the argument with my Dad, yes."
"No, that's not what I was asking. I wanted to know...was that why you wouldn't talk to me again? Because I sent the stories to a publisher, and you didn't want anyone to see them?"
Juliet shook her head 'No'. "I was really confused at the time, Lisa, that's all. I was both daddy's little girl and his pet educational project, and I had a hard time relating to other people. Plus, there was something inside me that couldn't fit into his perfect world, and I was desperate to find a place to belong."
"I'm sorry. That's something I never had to worry about." Lisa slid her arm around the back of the couch, and pulled Juliet in close. "Do you remember the last words you said to me?"
Juliet curled over and leaned her head on Lisa's shoulder. "It was stupid."
"It was true. You said, 'The real world is for people who can't imagine anything better.'" Lisa adjusted herself so that Juliet fit against her, soft and comfortable as a second skin. "I was happy with my world as it was, with you in it. As long as I had that, I could fix anything else."
"I guess I'm in for it then," Juliet said, her breath warm against Lisa's neck. "I can't imagine anything better than this."
"Welcome to the real world," Lisa said, and brushed her lips against Juliet's, letting the softwarmsweet feeling of being loved surround her.