Harry Watson has sandy blonde hair and clear blue eyes, and her favourite shoes are a pair of tall black lace-up boots with a thick heel that make her seem taller than she is. She has ragged nails. She wears a man’s watch. The first time Clara sees her, she is laughing.
Lindy tells her that it’s been four months and the time for bad telly and eating ice cream out of the box is over, and anyway it’s New Year’s Eve, so she doesn’t have much of a choice, does she? “I’m going to a party,” she says, “and you’re coming with me. Stop moping. Jennifer wasn’t any good for you anyway.”
“What was wrong with her?”
Clara has a reputation among her friends for picking the very worst women and then becoming stupidly devoted to them.
Lindy takes a moment to think, pulling at the corner of her lip with her teeth, as if this were a truly difficult question. She’s trying to be funny, but Clara isn’t amused. Then she announces, “Everything. Now come on. I promise you’ll have fun.”
The woman, the gorgeous woman, is wearing a suit with no jacket, and the top buttons of her shirt open almost too low, no jewellery, her hair done up in a simple, clean bun. Clara stands in the corner and watches her, without knowing her name or anything about her, without being able to take her eyes off her. She has a beautiful laugh, full and rolling. She’s standing next to a man who wears a gold earring in his left ear, and who is telling a story that just must be hilarious, but every time he leans forward, the woman leans away.
“You have to get out of this corner,” Lindy tells her, slipping up next to her again. The room is hot with too many people and Lindy’s cheeks have tinged a light pink. “Meet people. Make some new friends.”
Usually, Clara would complain about new people, talk about how she get so nervous around strangers, ask why she’s even here anyway and you know she doesn’t actually want any new friends—but instead, this time, she just lifts her champagne glass slightly and gestures with her pinkie finger, “Who’s that?”
“Who?” Lindy asks, and follow Clara’s gaze. “Oh. Her. That’s Harry Watson. You should be careful around her.”
“Careful? Why?” She furrows her brow (later, Harry will see her make this expression and tell her it is quite cute and touch her index finger lightly to the space between Clara’s eyebrows, just so).
“Because she is a notorious flirt,” Lindy says. “That’s why.”
Harry Watson. She says the name over and over to herself, rolls it about over and under her tongue, slides it into the hollow of her cheeks and against the roof of her mouth. A rather beautiful name. Ambiguous. Androgynous. Just the right number of syllables: she breaks it down and builds it up again.
She lifts her glass to take another sip of champagne and finds it unexpectedly empty, and a voice next to her says, “A tragedy.”
She splutters some answers like “what” and “excuse me” and “what,” and then Harry Watson’s rough-nailed fingers are taking her glass out of her hand. “You look lonely,” she says. She sets Clara’s empty glass down on a nearby table and then, with her newly free fingers, she reaches out and brushes back a stray strand of hair. “And your hair is falling into your eyes. And your drink’s gone. A tragedy.”
“Well, I—I wouldn’t call it that,” she tries, and thinks about grabbing those fingers and kissing them, each one and one by one, a lingering lick of tongue on the fifth.
“No,” Harry agrees, her low voice suddenly light and airy. Her words sound quite inconsequential when she says, “You’re right. I’m exaggerating. I just wanted to get your attention.”
“Well you—you have it now.” She takes a discreet deep breath, squares her shoulders, pretends like she’s going into battle, because beautiful women are always a battle, and then she sticks out her hand. “I’m Clara.”
“Harry,” the other woman answers, and slips her hand into Clara’s, holds it for a moment with a firm and demanding grip. “Nice to meet you.”
An hour before midnight, a crowd of latecomers invades, and Clara starts to feel flushed and sweaty from the added heat of all of those bodies crowding into a space just this side of too small. She knows her face has turned a certain unattractive shade of pink in the heat. She hates that colour. It’s so girlish, reminiscent of embarrassment, misspoken words, the confessing of secrets, and when it spreads across her cheeks it makes her feel like she’s all of sixteen again. The careful, elaborate twist into which she’d manoeuvred her hair before leaving has long come undone. She wants to pull out the last of the hair ties and pins and just shake it loose, but her elbows would get in too many people’s way.
“This guest list wasn’t very exclusive, was it?” Harry grumbles, as a hip bumps into her hip and the champagne in her glass sloshes almost to the rim. Clara doesn’t tell her she wasn’t invited, herself. She just makes a slight laughing noise and pretends it is agreement.
“It is rather hot, isn’t it?” she says. She puts her own glass down on a free space on a nearby bookshelf—it’s refilled by now, Harry’s doing, and Clara does not like to think how her breath had caught when their fingers touched, that well-worn electrical metaphor sparking between them just like in the books or in the movies. It is really, damnably, hot. She undoes the buttons on her cardigan (dark red, new, she worries too late that there will be bits of red fuzz left behind on her dress) and slips it off her shoulders.
When she looks up, she sees that Harry is staring at her. It isn’t the sort of accidental, inconsequential gaze a person sometimes stumbles into, the kind you break and turn away from when you’re caught. Clara is familiar with those. No, this is a type of stare that makes her feel like she’s just shucked off the rest of her clothes along with her cardigan, like she’s standing there naked and Harry can see all of her, knows all of her.
For a moment, she’s terrified, and then Harry smiles. “You have beautiful shoulders,” she says.
“Oh.” She can’t think of anything else to say; it’s the oddest compliment she’s ever received, and it seems somehow startlingly intimate. Then she recovers herself, her mum’s voice in her head reminding her what do we say when we hear a compliment?, and adds, “Thank you.” The words are quick and awkward and come almost too late.
“You really do,” Harry insists. She reaches out one hand, more confidently than Clara ever could have, and gently touches the curve where shoulder becomes arm. “A lovely neck as well.”
A notorious flirt, Lindy had said of this Harry Watson. She makes seducing women her hobby. She loves the chase, but she’s not much for relationships. She prides herself on a good conquest.
Clara has never had casual sex in her life. She falls in love fast and hard and once she’s there, she’s loyal, stubbornly loyal, to a dangerous degree. When Jennifer called her selfless, it wasn’t a compliment. And she knows that she’s already much too intrigued with, much too entranced by, this woman standing now just a step too close for comfort. This will certainly not end well.
They exchange childhoods by the only window, which Harry has wrestled open to let in a sharp and bitter chill. Clara wraps her arms around herself, rubbing the palms of her hands over rising gooseflesh, but doesn’t put her cardigan back on.
Harry tells her that she’s from the suburbs, went to university for no other reason than because she was supposed to, hated it for the first year and then fell in love and quickly out of love again, and by the time the fog of it had cleared, she’d realized that she was settled into the place, and was eventually sorry to leave. “I’ve never really had a plan,” she says. “When I was a student, no one asked me to. Well,” she adds quickly. “That’s not really true.” But she rushes on from this thought so swiftly that Clara finds it best not to ask. “You don’t want to know how many jobs I’ve worked. Waitress, bartender, cashier, secretary, sales clerk. The ones where you meet a lot of people aren’t so bad.” She smiles. “But listen to me go on.”
Clara’s story is more halting and jumbled. She jumps from the present to the past without ease, and too often falls into awkward pauses and drawn out placeholder noises. She tells Harry that she grew up by the sea and it’s still her favourite place in the world, that she works nw as a teacher in a small girls’ school, that she’s been following a plan that she set for herself when she was sixteen, just as closely as she can, except where it never works out. She means women, she means love, she means how other people are unpredictable, and romance never quite follows the route it should.
“People like you,” Harry says, with a small shake of her head, “you make me jealous.”
“I don’t see why.” Memories of Jennifer crowd out other thoughts, the still-new sting of it making her words sound bitter.
“Because you know what you’re doing. You have a plan.”
She’s looking now at Clara with her eyes wide and vulnerable, and something insistent about her expression like she just wants, just needs Clara to understand. It’s a fist-around-the-heart look, dangerously endearing. She tries to tell herself it’s part of the game. Sincerity can be faked, despite its name. It can be a weapon like any other. But she doesn’t believe it.
“Well, plans are overrated sometimes,” she says. The words don’t mean anything. It’s the hand she lets slide from Harry’s elbow to her wrist that is her real answer, and Harry knows it.
“Did you know,” Harry says, though it’s more of a whisper, really, like sharing secrets in the middle of the night, arm to arm with a best childhood girl friend, sitting too close to her, trying not to think about all of the things you want to do that she would never want you to do—“Did you know—?”
“What?” Clara asks, with the smallest giggle. She’ll remember it in the morning and be embarrassed.
“Did you know it’s almost midnight and—and I—well there’s no one to kiss.”
“No one?” She pouts. They’re still playing their game, and it does feel more a game now than a war, and she’s just about ready to throw all of her cards in the air and to hell with any thoughts of where they land. “I’m insulted.”
Harry’s eyes flick toward the clock, then back, and, “Three minutes,” she says, and, “is that an offer?”
Clara’s a bit dizzy with champagne and the close crush of people, with this Harry Watson, this gorgeous woman, and how long has it been? Four months. Feels like ages. “It just seems a shame,” she answers, “to wait three minutes.”
Harry’s fingers at her waist startle her, the space between them closing, hand now curling around to the small of her back and pulling her close, and it feels quite romantic, perhaps even cinematic¸ and did she mention to her that she loves moments like this, or does Harry just know? Perhaps she loves them too. Her mouth is so close, leaning in. Clara leans in, too. The first brush of lips to lips feels sweet. It is so simple; everything feels clear and easy; she thinks to herself how lucky that it is like this.
Faintly, a buzzing in the background of all the thoughts she is not having, she hears a slur of voices counting down to midnight. Harry’s mouth has opened by now, breath mixing with breath and, yes, a hint of tongue, teasing between them, and her hand is behind Harry’s neck, tilting her head just so. Just so.
Three, they count—Harry’s pulling her close, hips bumping hips—two—an attempt to change positions, nose smashing against nose—she feels like a teenager—one.
“Happy New Year,” Harry whispers. Clara can feel the words on her lips, echoing there as if she had formed them herself.
She kisses her on the nose and thinks it might just be.
Clara and Lindy share a cab home, sometime after one in the morning. Lindy asks if she’s drunk, and she says no but giggles over the word. She knows she is completely unconvincing. Lindy tells her that she and Harry Watson put on quite the show, everyone noticed, and does she even know what she’s doing?
“Usually do,” she answers with a shrug. She’s not sure about this time, true, but it hardly seems to matter. She has Harry’s number in her phone now, a tentative date (dinner next week, perhaps Friday?), a smudge of lipstick at the corner of her mouth, quite certainly not the colour she applied so carefully, so precisely, before she left the flat. It seems like enough, enough to hang some hopes on at least, enough for now.