There was a girl in Elle's sophomore year of college, Susan, whose mom passed away in the fall. Everybody knew about it because they had a bake sale for Breast Cancer Aid while she was sick. Elle thought it was just awful. She didn't know Susan super well, but they sat across from each other in English. Susan's skin wasn't great, but she had deep, glossy chestnut hair that needed a cut and maybe some deep-moisturizing treatment. She didn't use conditioner, obviously, and had terrible split ends. She wore thick-rimmed, round glasses, but had big, brown eyes behind them with long eyelashes, and full lips that Elle imagined choosing colors for, deep cherries and maybe even a fuschia.
One day Elle saw Susan on her way into what she realized later must be the library, carrying a pile of books.
"You know," Elle said kindly, "You could be super pretty if you mastered some basic beauty treatments. Your hair has great natural color. It's really lustrous closer to the roots."
Susan's eyebrows went way up. Elle forged on.
"Would you like to go to the salon with me some time? I have a great stylist who could do amazing things with your bangs. Or a manicure?"
Susan was starting to turn red, and her face was in a weird scrunchy expression. "Wh-why are you doing this?" she stuttered, and backed away from Elle. "Can't you people just leave me alone?"
Elle started to frown, then stopped herself. She didn't want to get wrinkles. "Listen," she said, making her voice reasonable, her best voice for getting the children out from under the punch-bowl table at her mother's fundraisers. She was beginning to feel frustrated. She knew Susan wanted to go to an Ivy League school. How did she expect to be taken seriously if she didn't take her appearance seriously? "I just thought it would be nice for us to get to know each other. You know, do some girl stuff."
Susan was clutching her bag strap so tightly that her nail beds were white. "You're a real bitch, you know that? Isn't it enough that my mom died? You have to harass me too?" She turned and walked away quickly, leaving Elle dumbfounded.
"I wasn't –" Elle said, feeling strangely hollow, but Susan was already gone.
"You asked her to go get a manicure with you?" Madison choked later, snorting around her coke. "Oh my god, Elle, you are so precious. She's a lesbian. They don't do that kind of stuff. She probably thought you wanted to hold hands and buy a station wagon together. God, those people are so disgusting."
"She did not!" said Elle, shocked, but she began to get a horrible cold feeling that she understood what had happened. Had Susan thought she was teasing her? About – about that? "Anyhow, who would think going for a manicure was, like, a date?"
"Lesbians have to keep their fingernails short," Madison leered. She waggled her fingers.
"Oh, gross," said Elle, and hit her shoulder. She could feel her face getting hot.
She thought a hundred times about how she could apologize to Susan, but she couldn't think of a way to do it that wouldn't be hideously embarrassing for them both. She could hardly meet her eyes as it was, and at the end of the semester Susan moved with her father to Portland, Oregon, so that was that.
It was about halfway through studying for the LSATs, leg twitching from too much caffeine, waking up with ink on her face after dreaming she had to find the flaw in an argument constituted by her mother's dresser and a pekinese, that Elle realized she hadn't thought about Warner in at least a day. Then, somewhere between the moment she sat down at her exam desk, all her senses vibrating to the crisp smell of the unopened examination paper, and the moment the bell sounded and a collective sigh went up around the clatter of pens, she realized that she wanted this more than a Barbie Beach House, more than Warner's grandmother's engagement ring with clustered diamonds in a classic yet faintly art nouveau floral design and central sapphire, more than a white wedding - more, in fact, than she'd ever wanted anything in her life.
When she read her score, it took a little while for her eyes to focus, and she thought she'd been proud when she won the Miss Junior California Beachwear Pageant, but the jolt that spiked through her gut now was closer to what she imagined doing one ninety on the freeway would feel like (which she had never done, because it was unsafe, inconsiderate and illegal). She was afraid, because she had always known she could do anything, but anything suddenly seemed a whole lot bigger than she had imagined. For love, she reminded herself, she could do anything for love, for Warner, and the huge feeling receded into a more manageable triumph.
She was uncharacteristically meditative that night, as Jenny Hsy, one of the freshmen sorority cohort, applied a third coat of OPI Soft Shell (an opalescent cream) to her pinkie nail. Her fingers were soft and warm, Elle noted approvingly. She had been using that scrub Elle recommended. There were cicadas chirping outside the sorority windows. The night felt oddly flat, like there was something else she ought to be doing.
"W-would you like me to do anything else for you, Elle?" chirped Jenny.
Elle recalled herself, and smiled. "No thanks, Jenny." She admired her nails. "Wow, you did a great job!"
Jenny glowed, a flush rising in her cheeks.
"I-I thought maybe we could watch a movie? Or – or – I could give you a massage? My mom says I g-give great massages."
Elle smiled gently. "Thanks. But I should sleep."
Jenny's face fell, just a little. Elle took her position as sorority queen very seriously. She didn't like to show favoritism; it was good for girls to idolize their elders – she'd followed Kelsey Wolverton around like a puppy for months in junior high, and had learned so much – but Jenny had to grow a thicker skin and form some friendship bonds with her yearmates. Elle smiled on her as she closed the door quietly behind her.
She ran a hot bath and took a few deep breaths of the Lulu and Boo organic vanilla and jasmine scent, trying to let the anxiety still lurking at the bottom of her mind dissipate and float away. She let her evening rituals comfort her, scouring and moisturizing her face and the rough skin on her knees, elbows and heels, then towelling herself dry and rubbing lemon-scented cream into her arms and flawlessly smooth legs. Her nails were still in good shape after her bath, and she thought about Jenny's gentle, long-fingered hands. Elle's skin felt warm and smooth, sensitized. She slid her hand between her legs and sighed happily.
Too relaxed to reach into the back of her underwear drawer for her Rabbit, she teased her clit with her fingertip and let her mind drift as pleasure sparked up through her. She usually felt a vague sense of guilt that she didn't think about Warner when she did this, but today she pushed that aside. She'd read her mother's Nancy Friday books, she knew liberated women fantasized about all kinds of things and it didn't mean anything. Maybe because she'd been reminded of Kelsey Wolverton, and massages, she idly remembered that time when Kelsey had injured her shoulder in gymnastics a couple of days before Elle's cheerleading team was going to regionals, and Kelsey was going to drive her in the pink Viper her father had given her for her seventeenth birthday. Elle wanted one just like it.
Kelsey had been shifting on the bed, a little crease on her forehead, with a heat pack on her back and her beautiful, natural red hair carefully spread out on the pillow so it didn't dry with kinks in it. She was wearing a little white lacy camisole and no bra underneath it.
"I need a backrub," she had muttered, pouting a little. "Nick gives the most amazing backrubs." Nick was her boyfriend, a senior quarterback.
"Oh!" said Elle, her mouth only a little dry, "I could give you a backrub! I give my mom backrubs all the time." She had immediately bitten her lip – could she sound more like a giant dork? – but Kelsey had brightened.
"Oh Elle, you're the best! Could you?"
Without even turning her back she had shrugged her camisole straps off her shoulders and tugged it down to her waist, revealing her small, bare breasts, and soft pink nipples. Elle tried to just be cool, not to seem like a prude. After all, they were both girls, it wasn't a big deal. Kelsey threw the pillows onto the floor and turned over jerkily on the bed, favoring her shoulder. Her skin was milky white, and dotted with barely perceptible freckles. Kelsey was always complaining about her freckles, but Elle thought they were cute.
She slicked up her hands with the mint essential oil on the night-stand and ran her hands over Kelsey's back, feeling powerful and hot and strange, so proud that Kelsey wanted her to do this, determined that she could do it better than Nick – after all, didn't girls know better what other girls wanted? And even though Elle was only fifteen, Kelsey had invited her for a sleepover like they were best friends. Kelsey mmm'd softly; thrilled, Elle pressed her thumbs into the tight muscles of Kelsey's back a little harder and fanned her fingers across the delicate ridges of her spine. Her nails were rose-pink and glossy, and she liked the way they looked against Kelsey's almost translucent skin.
Elle sped up her finger into more urgent motion now on her clit, her heart beating faster just thinking about it. Kelsey moaned again, deeper, so that Elle could feel it vibrating against her palms, and Elle wondered if that was the way she moaned when Nick went down on her. She knew Kelsey hadn't done it for real yet because she was waiting for prom, but she had told Elle that they'd gone to third base one time at Nick's family's cabin when his family went out.
"Oh my god, Elle, you are really good at this," groaned Kelsey.
"Let me take care of you," Elle whispered.
In Elle's mind now, she was Kelsey, and she was melting and squirming as someone went down on her. She could just feel their lips against her, their tongue flickering against her clit, their finger secretly sliding into her. Sparks gathered and collected deep inside her, and she came, arching against her hand and muffling a squeak in the bedclothes. After a moment, she wiped her fingers on a kleenex from the box beside the bed, and snuggled back into the sheets with a satisfied sigh. She drifted off to sleep with a smile.
When Elle met Vivian, she was too shocked – angry – appalled – she just had a lot of feelings, and she couldn't – how could Warner replace her? She was Elle Woods, people didn't replace her. She was irreplaceable. He'd told her she was. Warner breaking up with her had made her sad, but somehow, Warner replacing her was worse. Especially when she had to admit that Vivian wasn't entirely unfortunate looking. She was kind of snooty, and she dressed like she was about forty, and her bangs, ugh, but she had gorgeous skin and hair, and her eyes were sort of sparkly, and she had this snorting, bubbly laugh that was just so dorky that the first time Elle heard it she smiled involuntarily, before she saw whose it was.
The truth was, Elle had to admit in her secret heart of hearts, Vivian was actually kind of adorable, when she wasn't being totally mean. That made her so much more formidable an enemy. When she invited Elle to the party, there was a moment when Elle totally forgot that she was trying to steal Warner back from Vivian. She just wanted to make Vivian laugh like that again. Then, when she saw Vivian at the party, she just wanted to smack her. She didn't, of course. But she thought about it, a lot, slapping her face, mussing up her hair, turning her on her front, pulling up her skirt and spanking her like a bad toddler. It gave Elle a mean, hot, uncomfortable feeling. Ugly inside, ugly outside, she told herself. Luckily, she had a test on statutes coming up, and plenty of other things to think about.
Elle began jogging on the Charles River path shortly after the costume party debacle. She needed to get out into the fresh air, her thighs were beginning to lose their tone, and there was nothing like an endorphin rush to start the day. She added it to her schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays, jogging by the river. It was already quite busy there by six a.m., the breath of the other joggers misting quietly over the path as the sun rose through the bare tree branches. It was pretty and kind of olde worlde, and Elle liked it. On her fourth or fifth time out there, she got edged over by a jackass on a bicycle and bumped into a woman.
"Sorry," she muttered, not fully awake.
She looked up. It was Enid. She was jogging on the spot with a little backpack on her back. It wasn't her school bag, but it had the same little embroidered patches sewn on it, with raised fists and rainbows and feminist slogans. Elle didn't really understand why she had to wave her politics in people's faces like that even at six a.m., but it wasn't for her to judge.
"You jog? Here? Before class?"
Elle raised her chin, riled by her tone. "Why is that so surprising?"
They resumed jogging together, keeping pace. Elle picked up her pace a little, out of spite, and noticed that a young man wearing earphones gave them a sidelong glance as he passed, his gaze moving over Enid, Elle, Enid's bag. He moved onto the grass and gave them a wide berth.
"I don't know, weren't you out partying at a frat house or something last night?" Enid said, between panting breaths.
Elle didn't dignify that with an answer. She was a little out of breath herself, but couldn’t bring herself to slow down until her point was made.
"May I ask you something?" she said after a minute.
"Why don't you take me seriously? What is it about me?"
Enid missed a step and looked over at her, slowing down. "Do you really want to know?"
"Yes," said Elle firmly, and she decided that honor was satisfied and veered off the path to stop, her heart pounding. Enid followed. She took a swallow from her water bottle, and Elle crouched and stretched.
"It's the –" Enid gestured to her face, her body. "The whole thing. The pink. The manicures. The make-up. You look like you just stepped out of a beauty salon."
"… thank you?" said Elle, unsure of where this was going.
"How do you expect anyone to take you seriously if you take your appearance so seriously?"
Elle frowned in frustration, forgetting her wrinkles. She felt like stamping her foot. "Why should that mean I'm not serious? I like looking good! I like pink! Why should I wear beige and black and, and khaki sweatpants – and – not look after my hair? Why should people think that makes me a moron? It isn't fair."
Enid raised her eyebrows. She didn't say anything, but looking into her face, seeing as if for the first time her light brown skin, her hard jaw and tired eyes, Elle suddenly felt small. She looked away. Her breath steamed in the cold air, and her eyes stung for a moment.
"I guess you already knew the world wasn't fair, huh?" she said, smiling weakly.
"Yeah, kinda," Enid said, but she didn't sound mean. "Come on, blondie, let's walk. We're cooling down too fast."
They walked in silence for a few minutes in the direction of campus, walking their exercise out of tired muscles. Elle's knees were beginning to ache, and she was hungry for her bagel.
"I guess it isn't fair, you're right," Enid sighed after a while. "But you have so much, and you just want more and more, you know? You act like you've never been denied anything in your life. I feel like I should hate you on principle, but you're so damn cute that it's kind of difficult."
Anger at what Enid was saying and Elle's instinctive sense of its injustice warred with her logic, and underneath it, a warm flush at the compliment that she knew wasn't really a compliment. Or was it?
"So, if I try to be less cute you'll stay mad at me? That's not much of an incentive."
Enid snorted, then went into a coughing fit. Elle pounded her on the back.
"Oh god – I'm fine – choked on my spit."
"Ugh," Elle said. "You're so indecorous," but she was smiling, and Enid grinned at her, showing her teeth.
"Indecorous? Who the fuck says that?"
"Me," Elle said primly. "Potty mouth."
Enid sniggered. "Come on, Pollyanna. We'll be late for class."
"Why do you care whether I take you seriously, anyway?" Enid said, as they jogged slowly back up the hill.
"It's not just you, it's the professors, everyone." Elle said. "But - I've never met anyone like you before."
"Honey, I can guarantee I am not the first lesbian you have met."
"I've met lesbians," Elle scowled. "My gym teacher Mrs Sandringham had a pick-up truck and a great dane. And my sorority house had a GLBT-friendly policy and mandatory sexuality awareness training. I meant, you don't seem to care what people think. I thought you might tell me the truth. I respect that."
Enid jogged on in silence.
"I think you're cool," Elle clarified, realizing as she said it that it was true.
"Huh," said Enid.
By the time they'd jogged back to school together, Elle thought that maybe they were friends.
That evening, when she passed Enid's table with her dinner tray and looked at the empty seat, Enid raised an eyebrow. It wasn't exactly an invitation, but, daring, Elle put her tray down and sat.
"So there's a talk on feminism and law tonight at Wasserstein Hall," she said.
She smiled hesitantly.
"Uh – yeah," said Enid. "I know."
She looked at Elle curiously as Elle poked at her overdone green beans. Ugh, she had to find a good place to order sushi.
"So," she said. "Feminism, huh?"
"I took three history of fashion classes for my major," Elle said. "Feminism was actually a pretty big deal. You're kind of narrow-minded, you know that?"
Enid opened her mouth, then closed it again, and began to laugh. "Okay, blondie," she said. "Let's go see the talk."
"Don't call me that," said Elle. "It's demeaning. I thought you were a feminist?"
"Sorry," said Enid. She mocked smacking her own wrist. "Oooh, you bite. I like that in a woman."
"Jeez," said Elle, but she couldn't help giggling.
Elle was super glad to have an ally on the internship. It was awkward, being with Vivian and Warner, although Elle did her best to be polite and professional. In the first few days, Vivian and Warner always sat on one side of the table, heads close together, and Elle and Enid sat on the other. But as the week went on, Elle was working so hard that half the time she didn't notice who she was sitting next to. She shared a cab with Vivian, spent four hours with Warner and Enid working through some files, and all they talked about was work. It was fierce, intense, and by the end of every day Elle's mind ached like it was being physically stretched, but it was good pain, like pushing her muscles to the limit and finding she could do it, she could. It was a relief that everyone else seemed to be finding it as exhausting as Elle. In some of their classes she felt hopelessly behind the history and politics majors, but here, they were all as lost as each other.
One afternoon, Elle went to the ladies' a few minutes before a meeting and found Vivian there, dabbing at a round stain on her blouse, tears rolling down her cheeks. She turned when Elle came in, her eyes big and helpless, then she stiffened, and her shoulders slumped.
"Oh my god, could this day get any worse?" she said, turning away to hide her face, but Elle was already in action.
"Here," she said, passing Vivian a clean kleenex. Vivian blew her nose and dabbed at her eyes, trying not to smear her mascara. "What's the stain?"
"It's salsa," she moaned. "Mr Hemingway was eating a burrito in the elevator, and he walked into me."
"Great," Elle said. "That's an easy one. Acidic stains come straight out with application of a mild bleaching agent and cold water. Quick, take it off."
Vivian looked around. "In here?"
"Wait," said Elle. She ran out into the corridor, grabbed the "Closed for cleaning" sign she had noticed propped up against the wall, and stood it in front of the door to the bathroom, then, checking the corridor for anyone watching, grabbed three lemon slices from the catering tray that was waiting outside the board room.
"All clear," she said. "Quick, come on!"
Vivian glanced at the door, then at Elle, then began unbuttoning her blouse.
"Is that a lemon?"
Elle smiled. "Mild bleaching agent. I used to carry vinegar, but then you just smell like salad for the rest of the day. Lemon is much more natural."
Vivian handed Elle the blouse and blew her nose again. Her skin was white under the bathroom neon, and she looked thin and awkward. She crossed her arms over her small breasts. Elle, although trying to look away to give her privacy, was surprised to notice that Vivian's bra was a soft pink with a little lace trimming, almost identical to the one Elle was wearing. It made her feel like they shared a secret. It was a soft, private feeling, and she couldn't really reconcile it with snooty, Warner-stealing Vivian, so she pushed it down. Anyway, this was an emergency.
"Can you really get it out?" Vivian said. "Oh my god, I'm such a disaster. Shit, I don't normally cry, I'm just so tired, and Callahan already thinks I'm a waste of space –"
She swallowed and bit her lip, obviously trying not to burst into tears again, but she didn't try to hide it from Elle this time.
"Listen, if this had happened to me, I'd have hidden in a cleaning cupboard for the rest of the day," Elle said, pulling her emergency stain remover bar out of her bag. "And Callahan does not think you're a waste of space. He wouldn't have picked you for the internship otherwise." Vivian smiled weakly. Elle hesitated, then pulled out the chocolate bar she had been saving for her afternoon treat. "Here," she said.
"Oh," said Vivian, "I shouldn't."
"You need to boost your blood sugar," Elle said. "It's 75% cacao, it'll give you some endorphins too, and almonds for extra calcium and protein."
Another tear rolled down Vivian's cheek as she opened the wrapper, but she stood up a little straighter after taking a bite, and hopped up onto the make-up table while Elle filled the sink with water. It was a motion-sensitive faucet, but after finding the disabling switch under the basin, Elle coaxed out a steady, cool jet of water, and could flush out the stain from the inside-out, draping the unstained portion of the shirt over the marble basin to keep it dry. Then she squeezed the lemon slices out over the stain.
"Now," Elle said, "Scarves. I'll be right back. In two minutes, rinse out the lemon juice and start dabbing at the stain with the moistened corner of the hand-towel. Don't scrub, or you'll wear the fabric."
Lost wraps, scarves and collars were always abandoned at any receptionist's desk, and Nancy who managed the phones was really nice, especially since Elle had brought her muffins. She returned with a cherry-colored silk scarf that Vivian could knot around her collar to hide the stain, and would match her lip-gloss. The stain came out, and a quick blow under the hand-drier made it possible to wear, if not comfortable. The smell of lemon was noticeable, but not unpleasant.
"Oh my god," said Vivian, staring at herself in the mirror. "That's amazing. You can't even see it."
"Great job," said Elle. "We still have a minute before the meeting. Now – make-up."
Vivian flapped her hands and groaned. "Oh god, my make-up bag is in my desk."
"Okay, I got it. Eyes closed."
Vivian closed her eyes, and Elle carefully wiped away her leaked mascara and replaced it with a few swipes of her own brush. Vivian's eyelashes were delicate, and her eyelids fluttered beneath Elle's ministrations. She seemed to completely trust Elle to do what she needed, and her obedience gave Elle a pleased flutter. When Vivian opened her eyes Elle's face was still close to hers. Her cheeks were flushed pink, and the scarf fluttered as her chest rose and fell with her quick breaths, her lips parted. Elle wanted to touch them.
"I love that lip-gloss color on you," she murmured. Vivian's eyes opened. They were a lovely color too, Elle noticed, such a deep, classic hazel.
"Thank you," said Vivian, a shy smile spreading across her face that made her look pretty, sweet, a zillion miles from the Vivian who had flashed her rock at Elle on their first day of class. She should smile more often, Elle thought, slightly dazed. Then Vivian drew back suddenly, stiffly, like she'd just remembered Elle and she were enemies. It had become hard to remember that, when it was more and more obvious that Emmett and Warner just didn't notice the way Callahan treated Vivian, while she and Enid shared raised eyebrows every time he told Vivian to get coffee. "And, uh, thanks. This was really nice of you."
"No problem," said Elle, suppressing her odd feeling of disappointment. "Fashion crises transcend personal loyalties."
Vivian's smile faltered, and Elle mentally kicked herself, but then she fixed it back on and lifted her chin. "Okay," she said. "Let's get back to work."
About a week after the trial, Vivian tapped on Elle's door. It was past ten, but Elle was still reading, trying to catch up on her homework on the history of land legislature. She swallowed a yawn when she opened the door, and immediately regretted that she was only wearing her sweat-pants and a t-shirt, and not even any makeup. She hadn't seen Vivian since Warner had told her he loved her; Elle didn't know if Vivian knew, and she didn't know what to do about it. Vivian had apologized for what she'd said, but things had been cool between them, Vivian not meeting her eyes and Elle still stinging from the hurt and shock of Vivian yelling at her on the back of that horrible moment in Callahan's office.
Elle still hated that Vivian could think that of her, although she reasoned to herself that most of what Vivian knew about her was through Warner, and who knew what he had told her, and they had really only spent time together in the poisonous company of Callahan, where Vivian had become quieter and quieter, Enid more and more angry, and Elle had, she realized later, become a version of herself that she had knew Callahan liked, although she had thought at the time it was respect. She had begun to understand that it didn't matter how hard you tried, some people were always going to treat you well or badly because of things that had nothing to do with who you really were, and she was luckier than almost everyone in that regard. She had begun to remember all the times that Warner dismissed any of Elle's friends that he thought were ugly, how he made fun of Shirley O'Flanagan in college because she only had a second-hand Toyota Corolla, how rude he was to the maids in his frat house and the waiter at their favorite sushi restaurant. Elle had always brushed it off because she thought she loved him, but now she realized she'd been just as dumb as him, not seeing who he really was.
"Hi!" said Elle.
"Hi," said Vivian. "Uh. I brought you some flowers." She thrust her hand out. She held a bunch of pink roses. Bruiser raised his head from his basket and woofed softly, then lowered it again.
"Oh my god! Thank you!" said Elle, taking them confusedly. "That's so – why –"
"I broke up with Warner," Vivian said, all in a rush.
"And I wanted – to apologize to you, and, I wondered if, oh my god, I'm so bad at this. Can I come in?"
"I look a mess," Elle said automatically. "And my place is a mess."
"I don't mind," Vivian said, looking at her feet. "You always look cute, anyway."
The roses were beautiful, with lush, soft petals and the rich smell that always made Elle think of summer in her mother's garden. Elle found a vase under her desk for them as Vivian bent over Bruiser's basket and murmured to him. Bruiser panted up at her, obviously hoping for a cuddle, but Vivian perched on Elle's bed between the huge book of precedents and Elle's binder full of notes on federal land law, awkward and eager and looking around wide-eyed, just like that first time just a few weeks before.
"Your room is so nice," Vivian said, as if she'd felt Elle notice her looking. "It seems so comfortable. I love those little lights. It's so much homier than my room, you know? I don't know how to make it pretty, I feel like I'm still in boarding school." She sighed. Even on the bed she didn't relax; she sat, Elle thought, like someone was making her balance a book on her head.
"If you wanted to go to Pier One with me some time, I could make some suggestions," Elle said tentatively.
Vivian smiled shyly. "Would you? I'd really like that."
There was an awkward silence.
"So I broke up with Warner," Vivian said. "He was a total jerk."
"He was such a jerk," Elle said, with relief. "How did we fall for him?"
"I have no idea," said Vivian, her whole posture loosening too. "He's so cute, and so charming, and so –"
They burst into giggles.
"Did you have to give back the rock?"
Vivian pouted. "Yeah."
Elle made a sad face at her, and Vivian sighed. "I think I only dated him for the ring; I always wanted to wear a huge diamond, because I thought princesses wore diamonds. I saw it once when his grandmother came to a charity ball my mom hosted."
Elle nodded understandingly. "It was either that or kill the grandmother."
Vivian choked on a laugh.
"Listen, Elle, I wondered if – could I take you to dinner? I really – I really like you."
Her eyes were sparkling and earnest, and Elle felt drawn towards her, like a magnet.
"I like you too," she said softly. She couldn't stop smiling. "I'd like that."
"How about tomorrow?"
"Sure!" said Elle, then, "Oh wait, no, I promised Enid I'd drive her to her fight and cheer her on. Did you know she's competing at the state level?"
"No way, that’s so cool," said Vivian, then her face changed suddenly. "Are you and she – are you – "
"No!" said Elle. "Oh my god, no. We're just friends."
Vivian clapped her hand over her mouth. After a moment, Elle realized she was laughing. She hesitated, torn between a vague sense of irritation – was Vivian laughing at the idea Elle might date Enid? She could be dating Enid, they just weren't like that, that's all – and the melting sensation in her stomach every time Vivian laughed like that. She was ridiculous and undignified and completely, totally adorable. Giggles won out, despite herself.
"I just – I just thought," Vivian said, through bursts of giggles, "can you imagine Warner's face? When I told him I dated women in college he said – he said that all I needed was a real man –"
Elle gasped, half in indignant shock, half in hilarity.
"And if –" Vivian hiccuped, "If we got together –"
"He would never live it down," finished Elle. "It's the perfect plan."
They grinned at each other.
"You're bisexual?" said Elle. She was proud that she knew the word, and that her voice sounded cool and unsurprised.
"Oh, everyone who goes to Vassar is," said Vivian. "Otherwise you just die of boredom." She stood up.
"So, dinner? The day after tomorrow? There's this little sushi place I want to try."
"Oh my god, I love sushi," said Elle. "It's a date."
She was still smiling when she woke in the morning in a room perfumed by roses, the morning sun falling on the riot of pink in the middle of her desk. Then she suddenly thought, oh my god, it's a date.
In the class she shared with Vivian she was uncertain, already afraid that it was all a practical joke again, but the first thing she saw was Vivian's face looking for hers, Vivian's smile and wave. She was already surrounded by her friends, though, so Elle sat with David. But at the end of class, Vivian's hand brushed hers as she walked by, maybe accidentally, so Elle's knuckles tingled. Were they seriously going on a date? And did Elle really hope they were? It seemed unreal, like a possibly-lesbian-date was something that could never really happen to Elle, but at the same time, Elle was overwhelmed by the idea of kissing Vivian's soft lips, holding hands on moonlight walks and pressing their ankles together under restaurant tables, all those things Warner had been so good at, that she missed so much.
Thinking about it gave her that champagne-fizzy feeling, an excited ache like fear whenever she thought about the following night. She didn't know what to do with herself, and thought about calling Margot and Serena; she had even let Margot's phone ring once before it occurred to her what she was doing, and she hung up quickly. Paulette was on her third date with the Fed-Ex guy tonight (Elle really had to find out what his real name was), and couldn't be disturbed, and Elle wasn't sure what she thought about lesbians – bisexuals? queer women? – anyway. Then she realized she knew the perfect person to talk to about this.
"So. Girl talk," Elle said, dropping Enid's kit on top of Tort Law in the trunk of her car. "What do you do if you're having homosexual thoughts?"
After Enid had stopped laughing and had swallowed her coffee, she could mostly keep a straight face. "Masturbate?"
"No, but seriously," Elle said, steering into the fast lane.
"Eat? Breathe? Sleep? Read five hundred pages for Tuesday?"
"Oh my god, you are so useless. I'm in distress!" squeaked Elle. "I am maybe going on a date with a woman tomorrow night. With Vivian. And I have no idea what to do."
"I thought you thought Vivian was a, and I quote, frigid bitch? Didn't she steal your ex? Didn't she tell you that you asked for it when Callahan hit on you?"
"Callahan was an ass to all of us; we didn't speak up for her when he treated her like dirt," Elle muttered, looking resolutely at the lights of the range rover in front of her. "And she apologized. I think she's actually really nice."
"Have you ever even kissed a woman?"
"No, of course not!" said Elle. Then she remembered that night with Margot and Serena in her freshman year, giggly from too much Zinfandel and champagne punch, and how Margot's lipstick had tasted as Serena shrieked with laughter so much she fell off the couch. Margot's lips had been unbelievably soft, and her tongue slick against Elle's for one breathless second. "Oh wait, yes. But just practice, you know."
"Are you serious? You people really do that? I thought that was, like, some kind of sorority girl porn cliché."
"There's porn about sororities?" Elle spluttered, then glared as Enid dissolved into laughter again in the corner of the car. "Shut up. I am not sheltered."
"You are so sheltered. Did you rub each other down with essential oils? Look into each other's eyes and tell each other you were beautiful? Pinky swear you'd love each other forever? Dance around in tiny shorts?"
"Um," said Elle.
"Fuck, I should have joined a sorority," said Enid.
"It wasn't like that!" said Elle. "We just – were friends, we loved each other."
She had always loved most doing everybody's hair at sleepovers, painting the girls' nails, dressing them in the best colors and textures so that they saw themselves as beautiful as Elle did. She noticed women, she always had. Her least favorite professor had said that dressing a woman was as intimate as making love to her. Elle had thought that was because he was a creep. But she remembered how wonderful it had felt when Kelsey wore the dress Elle had picked out for her to her debutante ball, how Elle had felt like she was holding Kelsey all night, giving her confidence, telling her she was beautiful.
"Elle," Enid said, sobering up at last. "You realize that's kinda gay."
"In retrospect," said Elle.
She was having a personal revelation, and she nearly missed the turn-off to the competition.
"It's basically the same," Enid said through a yawn. She had come in second, and was holding an ice-pack to her knee. The highways around Boston were quiet at this time of night, and Elle was carefully driving at the speed limit, thinking of her 8am class. "Just without all of that patriarchal bullshit."
"I liked it when Warner held doors for me," Elle said wistfully. "He was good at making me feel special."
"Yeah, or a weakling," said Enid.
Elle shrugged. "As it turns out, he thought I was an idiot. Not so flattering. But that doesn't mean I don't like to feel looked after sometimes."
"Equality is sexy, Elle."
"I guess," Elle said. "But what if you take it in turns to make the other person feel special? Or if they make it up to you in other ways?"
"That's why lesbianism is the logical end of radical feminism," said Enid, leaning forward eagerly. The ice pack slid of her knee. "We need to escape the oppressive binary of heteronormative relations in order to address other structural inequalities, like race and class!"
"My love life is not a political experiment," Elle said, distracted. She consciously smoothed away her frown, then thought of Professor Stromwell, who was so elegant. Maybe she could afford a few wrinkles. They added stature to a woman's later years.
"Dating is political, Elle! You can't get away from it!"
"I just want some advice about one date! I'm not even sure it's a date!"
"I'm serious, Elle," Enid said. "You're making a political choice, here. Are you prepared to take her home to your family? To tell your friends? To be out to your employers? If not, you'd better be ready to tell her that."
"So, lesson one for being a lesbian, don't be an asshole. Actually, don't be Warner," Elle said crossly.
"Yup. And make sure your nails are clean and short. Here endeth the lesson."
Elle smacked her shoulder. "Oh my god, we're not going to have sex. She's at least a fifth-date kind of girl. You can tell."
Enid shrugged. "So treat her like a gentleman. Except, you know. A woman."
"Huh," said Elle thoughtfully. "Thanks, Enid."
She made up her mind to just be cool, to see where the situation took her, not to jump into anything right away. Her noble resolutions dissolved like smoke when Vivian smiled shyly at her outside the restaurant and reached for her hand, tangling their fingers together. She was wearing the cherry-red scarf Elle had found for her. She had a little blue hair-clip in her hair, the kind Elle had worn when she was ten, and it made Elle want to reach out and tuck her hair back over her ear.
"Is this okay?" she said, looking worried.
"Uh huh!" Elle said stupidly, clutching her fingers tight.
Vivian took a deep breath, then said, "Is this a date?"
"Yes," said Elle quickly. "Yes, it is." Vivian squeezed her hand again.
She regained her poise in the restaurant when Vivian seemed unsure about the menu, and Elle took over and ordered, then introduced a neutral topic – next semester's classes – which occupied them until the food arrived.
"Mmm," she said blissfully, sliding the first piece of salmon sashimi into her mouth. The smooth, almost buttery flavour, deep and complex, with the faint tang of wasabi underneath, washed her so full of homesickness she could hardly breathe. When she opened her eyes, Vivian was staring at her.
"Sorry," said Elle, embarrassed. "I really love sushi. I've missed it so much."
"I know," Vivian said in a rush. "I heard you say in that class when Professor Robins came in late."
"That was months ago!" said Elle, touched. "That's so sweet."
"Can I tell you a secret?" Vivian said, those pink spots high on her cheeks again. "I've never had sushi. I was going to just order noodles but I was embarrassed, and you were so cool when you ordered, and, um. This was probably a stupid idea. I thought this way, you'd know I was serious. That I'm really, really sorry for the way I treated you."
"Oh, Vivian," Elle said helplessly, and took her hand across the table. She could see what it had cost Vivian to admit that she didn't know what she was doing, and suddenly it made all of this real, that she was doing this, that her life would change, and that she wanted it to. Gathering her courage, she lifted Vivian's hand to her mouth and kissed the knuckle of her pinkie finger.
"There's nothing to be ashamed of," Elle said seriously. "It's not for everyone. But I bet you'll love it. This is really good."
"Show me how to eat it?"
"We should order some California Roll or Dynamite Roll," Elle said. "You should work your way up to sashimi."
"No," Vivian said, a little crease between her eyebrows, her jaw set in determined bravery. "I want to try what you're having."
Elle dipped a smaller piece of salmon sashimi into the soy sauce and wasabi, then lifted it to Vivian's mouth. Vivian took it, and Elle, fascinated, watched the range of expressions that flitted across her face as she chewed. At last Vivian swallowed. "Ugh – wow – that's – the texture is – but the flavours – um, I think I like it?"
Elle smiled, and smiled, and fed her some spicy tuna roll, and they ordered California roll and vegetable tempura, and they pressed their ankles together under the table, and it was the best first date she had ever had, ever.
Elle drove Vivian back to her dorm. She felt light and bubbly inside, and her chest was tightening in anticipation and fear of whether Vivian would want to kiss her (they had both taken breathmints from the restaurant, but that could mean anything), when Vivian turned to her abruptly and said, "So, uh, do you want to come in?"
"Oh!" said Elle, momentarily nonplussed.
Vivian looked at her hands. "Was that too fast?"
"No! I just wasn't expecting – you know what, I would love to come in," Elle said, taking the plunge.
"We don't have to do anything you don't want to," Vivian said quickly. "I just thought we could, you know. Listen to music, have some tea…"
Elle raised an eyebrow.
"Make out…" Vivian added, with a sidelong smile.
They forgot the music and let the kettle boil, kissing while pressed up against the counter. Vivian's lips were so soft, and she smelled delicious; her hair was silky and soft against Elle's fingers, and her skin felt incredible. Before Elle knew it they were pressed against each other on Vivian's bed, clothes in disarray. Vivian opened Elle's blouse with a triumphant grin that Elle found adorable, and practically fell on Elle's breasts, pressing her whole face into Elle's cleavage with a little moan of happiness as Elle laughed, shocked and breathless. Vivian looked up at her, chin on the elastic ridge of Elle's bra.
"I'm kind of a sex dork," she admitted.
"You are so cute," Elle said.
Vivian grinned again. Her blouse was undone and her cardigan was discarded on a chair, and there were distracting flashes of bare skin above her preppy pleated skirt. The more clothes she took off, the more it seemed to Elle like they were less like some kind of East Coast armour and more like a prison; she became more uninhibited and relaxed with each clothing item that came off. Elle seriously had to take her shopping.
"Can I take off your bra?" Vivian murmured, after making her acquaintance at length with Elle's cleavage, the skin of her shoulders, her throat.
"Only if you take off yours," Elle said, then winced at the note of challenge in her voice, but Vivian was still grinning and was already shucking hers off her shoulders. Her breasts were small, with occasional freckles, and her nipples were dark, a dusty pinkish-brown. Elle remembered being in the bathroom of Callahan's law firm with her, the way she'd hunched in on herself and crossed her arms across her chest. Now Vivian was staring greedily at Elle as she slowly removed her bra.
"Your breasts are so fantastic," Vivian whispered huskily, and Elle giggled, in spite of herself.
"Thank you!" she said. "Yours are lovely too."
"They're okay," Vivian said. "I thought about getting a boob job, but I didn't want to miss any school."
"Oh no, don't do that," Elle murmured, frowning, and she crawled over Vivian and pushed her back gently, her pulse leaping as Vivian lay back obediently, smiling. Elle ran her thumb over her nipple, fascinated by the little changes in texture as her nipple tightened and peaked in the cool air. Vivian gasped softly.
"You want to suck on it?" she whispered.
Elle's mouth watered and that low-down twist of desire pulled at her again, and she bent to suckle at Vivian's breast, so that Vivian arched and squirmed and moaned underneath her until Elle let her go, feeling dangerously turned on.
"My turn?" said Vivian, and Elle got up on her hands, pinning Vivian's wrists to the sheets. Vivian moaned luxuriantly.
"Yeah?" said Elle, breathless, and Vivian nodded, wide-eyed. She lowed herself down over Vivian and let her take her breast in her mouth, and Vivian moaned again. Elle held herself up and Vivian down until she was trembling at the electric feeling of Vivian's soft lips and tongue against her nipple, and she was rubbing rhythmically against Vivian's thigh without even really being aware of it. Then they kissed some more, naked from the waist-up against each other. It felt amazing, different, but not really as much as Elle had expected.
"Do you want to have sex?" Vivian murmured into Elle's ear, and Elle shivered.
"Yes," she said fervently, and then they were wriggling out of their pants and underwear, and Vivian's curious fingers, then her mouth, were between Elle's legs, and Elle was melting, hot and vibrant, and it was amazing.
It was also slow and awkward in the way that first-time sex always was, or so Elle assumed, but it wasn't painful in the way that her previous first-time experiences had been – it was the total opposite. After Vivian had been going down on Elle for a while and Elle was beginning to wonder if it was mandatory for lesbians to orgasm during sex with new partners, Vivian ducked down out of bed, pulled a vibrator out of her underwear drawer and waggled it at Elle with a grin, like it was just a matter of course that they could use one, while it had taken Elle two years to persuade Warner that it wasn't any reflection on his manhood. They didn't share this one, of course – they would have to buy one to use together, Elle thought happily – but just knowing it was an option made her feel better.
"How about I touch myself, and you kiss me?" she suggested, and Vivian wriggled up the bed and kissed her straight away, and Elle shivered with delight as she came at last, rocking herself against Vivian as Vivian teased her neck with her teeth.
"Oh my god, oh my god, me now, please," Vivian said, her voice about two octaves higher than usual, and, sleepy and sated, Elle sucked on Vivian's nipple while she ground up against Elle's thigh, the vibrating bead buzzing between her legs, and she made little high, choking noises as she came.
"Pink doesn't really suit me," said Vivian. "I wish it did. I always wanted to look like a Disney princess, like you." She laughed her perfect, snorting laugh again, then sighed, and nestled against Elle's shoulder. "I think that was what I liked about Warner, you know? He made me feel a little bit like a princess. Or at least the ring did. But he didn't make me feel like a lawyer. And he made me feel – straight. Not queer. I was, for a while, in college. I cut my hair and wore plaid and came out to my parents, and they just, just laughed at me, like I would get over it, and they were so proud when I got into Harvard and got back together with Warner, and all the mean comments just went away." The words were spilling out of her now, like they had been waiting there for her to say them.
"I expected to like it, but – I didn't. I felt like a big faker. And then I met you, and you didn't care what people thought of you, and I just – I wanted to be like you so much, and then I wanted to, um." She buried her face in Elle's neck. "You know. This stuff. But then I feel like an asshole for wanting everything."
Elle felt like Vivian was on the edge of something, a truth that she hadn't been able to articulate to herself.
"I think it's okay to want things," she said slowly. "It's okay to get them, as long as we realize how lucky we are. And we'll have to work for it. It might be hard. But it's worth it."
"A queer princess lawyer?"
"Yes," Elle said seriously. "If that is how you identify, I am one hundred percent committed to supporting your self-expression as a queer princess lawyer."
Vivian propped her head up on one hand. "And how about you? What do you want?"
Elle took a deep breath. "I want to be a partner by the time I'm thirty-five," she said. "And I want to love clothes and makeup and Cosmo and Vogue and wear pretty clothes. And I want a white wedding. And I want you to be my girlfriend."
"Okay," whispered Vivian. "That sounds great."
"And I think –" said Elle, her voice only shaking a little, "I think sometimes I want to be the boss."
She wasn't sure if Vivian would understand, but Vivian's eyes went dark and intense. She ran a hand up Elle's thigh. "You mean, like, handcuffs and stuff? I'm into that. My ex-girlfriend used to tie me up all the time."
Elle laughed with wonder and delight. "Would you teach me?"
"Sure!" said Vivian.
"I want to dress you," Elle said, breathless, and she crawled over Vivian, whispering like it was a secret, the biggest secret she had ever had. "I want to dress you and take you out, and help you decorate your room, and paint your nails, and give you bubble baths when you're tired after work."
"Okay," whispered Vivian into her mouth, her thigh rubbing rhythmically between Elle's legs.
"And I want you to do the same for me," said Elle.
"Yes," said Vivian. "Yes, please, yes."