Willow dragged her soggy french fry through ketchup before popping it in her mouth. She chewed silently.
It had been a choice between McDonald's or Border Grill. Willow would have preferred the latter, but she couldn't bear to eat at a sit-in restaurant by herself. And since her mother had bailed on her for lunch so as to go out with a gaggle of professional colleagues, Willow had no choice but to eat by herself.
So she poked at the pitiful-looking hamburger while sitting in the food court of the mall. Said mall was directly across from the convention center where the National Sociological Association was holding its annual convention. Her mother had bought a ticket for Willow, stating that there were to be a number of presentations about the "gay and lesbian lifestyle" that Willow would find fascinating.
After all, lesbians of her age and social group were often voracious in exploring their identity, especially at this stage of Willow's coming out process, so Sheila Rosenberg was certain that Willow would find the lectures enlightening and valuable.
That was a word with baggage. Willow wasn't even sure if it fit her, and yet now that she was in a relationship with a girl, everybody was eager to bury her under it. Obviously, yes, gay to some extent. But lesbian?
Tara was a lesbian. She'd been out. She'd faced prejudice and discrimination, from her own family no less. What had Willow faced? Maybe some awkwardness from her friends, but besides that? The presentations talked of hate crimes, but Willow hadn't dealt with any of that.
It's like she hadn't earned her gay stripes.
How could she take on the "lesbian" label when she didn't exactly fit in with the specifics of that particular social category?
After the events of Tara's birthday, Willow felt more in love with her than ever. She also felt more distant from "lesbian". And the more that people kept trying to shove her into that box, the more she resisted.
As if the mere thought of the word had summoned her from the depths of the city, Cordelia appeared laden with a panoply of shopping bags. She swung them onto the chair across from Willow and smiled.
"So you didn't tell me you were going to be in LA."
Willow frowned. She hadn't told many people. She hadn't exactly been happy about the trip. Her mother had bought the ticket without asking her if she'd even wanted it. And she hadn't even bought a ticket for Tara - which was rude and probably a sign of some larger issue with her mother. Willow often wished she knew half the stuff her mother knew, just so she could diagnose her with Academianus annoyingus or pontificate about the effects of society-wide pedantry on middle class women in the 40-50 age bracket. Or something.
Cordy had already scooted into the booth next to Willow.
"What are you doing here?" Willow asked, trying to make conversation.
"Shopping! Duh! Are you done with those fries?" Cordelia grabbed a couple.
Willow pushed the rest over to her. "There's an academic conference across the street. I'm here with my mom."
"Oh." Cordy blinked. "That's...cool."
"No, it's not."
"Okay, totally not." Cordelia waved a hand. "You will not believe what's been happening around here..."
Willow's thoughts wandered as Cordy crafted a soaring narrative. It's not that she didn't care about what was going on in Cordy's life. She'd thought a lot about her friend in the past months. She'd sent a card last summer when Cordy had been in the hospital! And then she'd phoned her after the hospital stay, just to check in on her!
But then Willow had been getting closer to Tara, which made her feel further from Cordy, but then she all of a sudden hit the "lesbian" brick wall and was now all discombobulated and out of sorts.
"Willow, what's wrong?"
Cordy's sharp voice cut through her meandering mind. Willow turned to face the former cheerleader.
"Well, you haven't reacted at all, even though I'm telling you that Darla, Angel's old squeeze, is back."
"Oh." Willow blinked.
"Also," Cordy continued. "My hand has been inching up your thigh for the past minute, but you've barely noticed."
With a start, Willow realized that that was true. Cordy's hand was heavy on her thigh, roughly grabbing her through her skirt.
It wasn't unpleasant.
But it was confusing.
Willow put her hand over Cordy's, turning the almost-grope into a handhold - under the table for discretion, of course.
"Cordelia, do you think of yourself as a lesbian?"
Cordy laughed. "Uh...no. I mean, I'm not exactly chasing after girls, am I?"
Willow reminded herself to breathe evenly. This topic, for some reason, made her run out of air.
"But you and I..."
"Whatever. That doesn't make me a lesbo or anything. We're just...very good friends." Cordelia squeezed Willow's hand. "What's with the serious over this?"
Willow shrugged. "Bunch of stuff. My mom, Tara, Tara's family. They all think I should be a lesbian or I am a lesbian, but the word doesn't seem to fit for me."
"Well, you were with Oz."
Willow nodded. "Yeah."
"Wanna know what I think?"
"I have a feeling you're just gonna tell me anyway."
Cordy didn't pause. "There's...us, and then there's lesbians. You know? We're not all butch and mannish and stuff, ravashing weirdo lipstick lesbos or anything. We're just normal girls who - sometimes - kiss other girls that we like."
A part of what Cordelia said made sense. Another part made Willow want to curl up and cry.
A stocky woman with a buzz cut wearing bermuda shorts walked past their table on her way to the trash can. She stalked away.
Cordelia eyed her before looking back at Willow. "See, you don't wanna be that."
Did she? Didn't she? Obviously, Willow couldn't cut the butch look. But what if she was one of those weirdo lipstick lesbos? Except without the lipstick because Willow didn't really bother with it most of the time. Or ever, really, because lipstick never made sense to her since it always wore off and you had to keep putting it on and what was the point of that?
"When'd you get all wise?" Willow asked, hoping to change the subject. All this lesbian talk made her feel like she was in high school again.
Cordelia elbowed her. "I've always been wise, dummy." The brunette looked around at the rapidly emptying food court. Lunchtime was ending. "What are your plans for this afternoon?"
"Uh..." Willow recovered her hand to rummage through her bag. She pulled out the convention program schedule. "Sociometric Measures of Income Comparing Gay and Lesbian Couples with Straight Couples in Rural Communities."
"While that sounds thrilling, maybe you could play hooky on your mom and come back over to my place."
Willow folded the program. She couldn't do this now. Not while she was in this mental quagmire. Going home with Cordy would complicate things even more. Her friend was enticing as ever, vibrant as ever, gorgeous as ever. And yet, something didn't sit right in the things she'd said.
Those things...they'd been what Willow had wanted to hear, right? Something other than the constant lesbian litany.
It wasn't any better, though.
"I really can't," Willow said, though the words felt hollow. Like they were deflating and thumping to the floor as soon as they left her mouth. "My mom would notice." Such a lie. Her mom hadn't even remembered her to take her to lunch. Willow was a convenient Lesbian Daughter trophy for her mom to brandish to her academic colleagues. Willow's actual presence, her person, wasn't required for that.
"Oh," Cordelia said, frowning for the first time. "Well, okay."
Willow grabbed her bag as she stood. She didn't make eye contact with Cordelia.
Cordy gathered up her shopping bags. "You're acting so weird," Cordy said.
Willow shrugged. "I'll make it up to you later."
When she looked up, she found Cordelia's gaze. It trapped her, careening her around and twirling her heart into little dizzy figure-eight patterns. Maybe infinity patterns? Cause her and Cordelia always came back to each other?
That was stupid, and so was her heart pounding so quickly at the mere look from this other woman, and suddenly Willow thought about how stupid she was to not take Cordelia's invitation.
Cordy stepped toward her with her imposing force of will to stare down at Willow.
"I'm holding you to that." Cordelia smiled affectionately. "My little nerd."