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Atthis, once long ago

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 I loved you, Atthis, once long ago

A little child you seemed to me and graceless

—Sappho

 

The day she got back to Chicago, Susan sat in Grant Park at noon. 

She looked at the office clerks on their lunch breaks, and at the young mothers pushing strollers. She looked at the high school kids messing around on their Christmas break. 

Reno had been cold, but weightless. Susan had walked all the way to Virginia Street in the twilight, down to the strip where neon lights flickered The Biggest Little City in the World!, from the golf course end all the way to the university. She’d kept on walking until the pale desert air gave her a nosebleed; then turned around and got lent a hankie by one of the dancing girls out on the sidewalk for a cigarette break, who turned out to have grown up in Omaha just a couple blocks from Susan’s auntie Ethel. It was the longest conversation Susan had in the whole six weeks she was gone.

Now she was back. The city air felt heavy. Susan had no particular thing to do. 

So she sat on a bench with her back to the reservoir, staring across Michigan Avenue at all the Christmas stuff in all the shop windows. Roger’s sister Stella had visited them once in the big house in Bridgeport; getting out of the taxi with her hat box and her dangling cigarette, she’d hugged Susan one-armed and said, over Susan’s shoulder, “Shit, Rog. Looks like Santa Claus puked all over this city.” 

Susan patted her coat pockets, smiling a little. Earlier she’d thought she was out of smokes, but maybe she’d been wrong. The pink tweed parted over her leg at the same time her hand in her pocket closed over the empty pack, and she stared down for a long time at the run in her stocking, right over her knee. Thinking, nonsensically: she had liked Stella. Stella had been married three times, and drank beer in the daytime. Roger had only invited her the once.

It was always like this, Susan thought, getting up and wandering over toward Randolph Street, throwing her empty cigarette pack in the trash can as she passed. She expected, always, when she signed her name to a paper or put out her hand to someone, to feel different. She’d expected it standing on the stage at Cranston in her mortarboard with her diploma in her hand; and she’d expected it in the receiving line in her expensive white dress, her dad beaming at her from the center table. And she’d expected it today.

And instead, here she was. Standing in front of the electric reindeer in Marshall Field’s big display window. Feeling nothing much at all. 

She could see about the run in her stocking, Susan thought. That would be something to do.

And it was. It was something to do. Marshall Field’s was garish and crowded, and it was just the right amount of distracting, having to navigate her way among all the frantic pushing shoppers, through the signs proclaiming Make it a Real Family Christmas with Waldorf Matching Pajamas! and Gold Toe: Start out 1963 on the right FOOT, to find the hosiery section and look through the nylons. Susan liked Worthmore, and she liked the medium shade of navy in the heaviest weight with the built-in girdle, and she felt glad that she knew all this about herself already and didn’t have to think.

There were only two pairs left. Superstitiously, she decided to get them both. She tried to think of other things she might be glad to have, later on, but it seemed impossible to predict; so she stood in line with her two little packages, staring at the back of a blonde head and not thinking about much. It wasn’t until the blonde put her wallet back in her Mary Quant handbag and turned to go, that Susan noticed the checkout girl. 

But she looks just like Leda, Susan thought, standing stupidly with her pantyhose packets in her hand. Just like her. How strange.

Of course she didn’t look just like Leda. The woman skewered a receipt on a pick on the counter and bent to mess with the paper bags, calling up in a deeper, rougher version of Leda’s honeyed voice: “I’ll be with you in just a sec!” She didn’t look just like her, because Leda had been lithe and almost painfully young, her creamy back soft under Susan’s fingers. Leda’s long black hair had tickled Susan’s chest, and neck, but this woman’s hair was cut short all around her face, and her lips made up pale, and her lids and false lashes movie-star dark, and—

“Susan Mitchell?” Leda said, straightening up and smiling, incredulous. “Is that you?”

Susan didn’t correct her. She stepped forward and put her things on the counter and said “Leda Taylor. After all these years.” She had the wild urge to giggle, right there at the hosiery counter at Marshall Field’s. 

“Well this is great,” Leda was saying, smiling at Susan. “D’you shop here? I’m only working as a pinch-hitter, during the holidays, or maybe I woulda seen you. What are you—do you live in Chicago, now?”

Of all the questions, Susan thought. She twined her bare fingers together, thinking of the big house in Bridgeport. 

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I. I’ve lived here for a while, now.” 

She smiled. She tried to think of something else to say. Nothing came to mind. 

“Me too,” Leda said at last. “It’s okay, don’t you think? I mean, it’s not forever, I’d like to travel, see a little bit of the world now that I’m—” Susan drew in a breath. “—back,” Leda finished. 

Leda tipped her cropped head to one side, pulling Susan’s pantyhose over the counter toward her, writing down their prices on a green paper ticket. 

“How long—,” said Susan. Her throat seized up and she started coughing, but Leda answered anyway.

“Four years,” she said. “Jan ran out of money, and then she wanted a nursemaid in her old age. So she sprang me. Two sixty-eight, by the way.”

Something caught at Susan, in the plainness of that two sixty-eight. The wild, horrified giggles welled up again inside her. She laughed and tried not to laugh, and made an ugly gurgling noise, her face heating. But Leda started laughing, too, ringing up Susan’s underwear.

“Are you really laughing at the crazy lady, kid?” she said, shaking her head. “Boy, you got hard, Mitch, you got real hard, I don’t know if—hey, what’s wrong?” 

It must have shown, the weird pain that had flared inside Susan, just for a moment. 

“It’s just,” Susan said. “No one’s called me that. Not—not since.” 

“Oh,” said Leda, raising her eyebrows into the cash register drawer, making Susan’s change. “I’m. Flattered.”

“You shouldn’t be,” said Susan, too quick, brushing Leda’s palm as she took her thirty-two cents. Then she held her breath for a while, looking down at her hand.

“Yeah,” Leda said, quiet. “Well.” She cleared her throat. “Merry Christmas, anyway. It was good seeing you again, Mitch.”

Susan nodded. She ground her dimes and pennies together in her hand. She thought of Leda in the hospital, laughing, crying, a needle in her arm. Leda saying If I ever do anything good, I don’t know when I’m doing it. Leda saying You should know some of the goddamn funny jokes—. The people behind Susan were starting to yell up to the front of the line.  

“Susan?” Leda said.

“Do you get a lunch break?” Susan blurted out, so fast she thought it might not make sense. 

Leda raised her eyebrows. 

“I’ve…taken it,” she said. 

It was a long few seconds before she added, “I’m—I’m off for the day, in another forty minutes. If you wanted to wait.”

 

***

 

Forty minutes, it turned out, was an awkward and surprising interval. 

More specifically, it was sufficient for Susan to change her mind and back three times. Time enough to think with a kind of theoretical satisfaction about standing up Leda Taylor: beautiful mad Leda, whom Susan probably ought to have hated; who had been locked up for corrupting Susan and was never going to get better, but who smiled now at the customers and chatted easily as she rang them up. Glamorous Leda, who said yes to Susan even though she’d seen that Susan wore bargain-brand control-top pantyhose. That should have been a good argument. Three times Susan started out with a firm step toward the Randolph Street El station. 

But every time it felt so silly. Every time, she pictured Leda coming out of the big glass double doors, watching Susan walk away from her without Susan seeing Leda looking. 

It wasn’t as if Susan had any particular place to be.

And so there she was, standing to one side of the glass doors when Leda came out at last, fastening the waist ties of her black rain jacket, a bright-pink headscarf knotted over her cap of short hair. Susan jumped a little at the sight. But how could she be startled, when she was expecting her? She put up her hand and waved, and Leda came over.

“I thought you might not wait,” Leda said. 

“Why would you think that?” said Susan.

Leda shrugged. She rolled her shoulders. They stood there in front of Marshall Field’s.

“So,” said Susan, swinging her arms. “So, what do you want to—”

It occurred to her now, as if she hadn’t just had forty minutes in which to think it over, that it was still only two-thirty in the afternoon. What did a person do in the city, with Leda Taylor, at two-thirty on a December afternoon?

“I don’t care,” Leda said. “Bridget at the makeup counter says the big tree is up on Congress Street. Have you seen it?”

“No,” Susan said. A municipal Christmas tree was easy enough to look at again. “No, I only just got back in town.”

So they walked down State Street, back toward the park. It felt later than two-thirty, Susan thought. It wasn’t snowing, but the sky was flat and dark like it got just before. Everything she could think of to say had the drawback of either mentioning Roger, or not mentioning him.

“Where did you go?” Leda asked, as they turned onto Madison.

“What?” Susan said.

“You said you just got back in town.”

“Oh,” said Susan. “Um. The Sierra Nevadas. I went skiing.”

Leda shook her head. “You must still be doing all right for yourself, then,” she said, tipping her head back to the dark grey sky like she liked the cool feeling on her face. Her short hair made her neck look very long, and very white.

“Well,” Susan said. “You know. Dad.”

They turned on Michigan, steering between the snow drifts and the sewer grates, Susan a little awkward in her pumps. Leda had on ballet flats with black capris that ended just above her ankle. It looked freezing. 

“Do you see any of the Cranston girls?” Leda asked, then said, quick, laughing a little: “I almost don’t want to ask. I used to like to imagine to myself, at the hospital, how everyone turned out.” She cleared her throat.

“I, um, don’t. Not really,” Susan said. There had been a Tri Ep house up near the University of Nevada, but she had stayed in a motel on the outskirts of town. “Well, I used to—I mean—I still exchange Christmas cards with Robin. Robin Maurer, you remember.” 

“Booted out for a flat tire,” said Leda.

“She got married to an epidemiologist,” said Susan, who hadn’t even opened Robin’s last two Christmas cards, and was now trying to remember the one from three years ago. “She’s got two kids, and, um, some kind of spaniel, I think. They live outside DC.”

“Sounds grand,” said Leda.

The municipal tree was right in the middle of the plaza. It was decorated with bright, generic baubles, and silver tinsel, and thousands of tiny electric white lights. They stood by the railings in front of it, their breaths fogging the air. Leda took out a cigarette. She almost put the pack away, and then maybe saw the look on Susan’s face. In any case she smiled and waved it toward her and said “Want one?” 

Susan took one. They faced forward, looking at the tree.

Susan stood and smoked, and got that sinking feeling, like she would never make anything happen. She and Leda would finish their cigarettes, and say their polite goodbyes, and then Susan would go check into the hotel where the concierge at the train station had advised her to send her bags, and she would think every day about going back to Marshall Field’s hosiery counter, but she was a coward and would wait until after New Year’s, when Leda would be gone.

“I know it’s early,” she said, all in a rush, “but do you want to go for a drink? It’s really cold.”

“Yeah,” Leda said. “Okay.” 

Susan took a breath. They would have a little more time, then. 

“Good,” she said. “I know a good place, um, it’s a little bit of a walk, but—down on Clark and Division?” 

She fidgeted with her cigarette. She’d only dared go there twice, before. She’d left before anything happened. 

Leda exhaled, staring up at the tree. Susan thought she seemed pensive, like she’d always been when she was trying to decide something. At last she said, “I don’t think they open until five.”

“Oh!” Susan said. “Oh. You’ve been.”

Leda threw her cigarette end on the gravel; ground it out with her toe. 

“Look,” she said, “my place is closer than Rosie’s. If you want.”

 

***

 

Leda had a tiny apartment off Adams on Green Street, in Greektown, past blocks and blocks of stale urine smell and drunks sleeping rough. 

“Kind of funny, isn’t it?” Leda said, unlocking the deadbolt and holding open the door. “One kind of Greek Town to another.” She took a deep breath, standing by the coat rack. “Course, I really could be Greek, for all I know. Jan never exactly said.”

The place was certainly a lot neater than their old room at the Tri Epsilon house, Susan thought. If only because Leda didn’t seem to have many things in it. She felt a distant pang, thinking about that, about all the exuberant mess of Leda’s scarves and Leda’s hairbrushes and Leda’s sweater sets at Cranston. There was a noise of the icebox opening behind her, and she turned around.

“So,” Leda said, crossing from the icebox to the little kitchen cabinet for glasses. “They stopped calling you Mitch at school, huh? After I left?”

“I’m not sure why,” Susan said, nervous. “I didn’t ask them to, I think it just—Lucifer was reading some Tennessee Williams script he got hold of the first part of sophomore year, and—one thing led to another. Somehow he started calling me Maggie, and it, um. It caught on.” 

Leda let out a laugh, a real one, rough around the edges, measuring out vodka shots at her counter. Susan smiled, too. Leda really laughing was always a wonderful thing. 

“You know that’s not a compliment, right?” Leda said.

“I don’t know,” said Susan, smiling. “You had to have known Lucifer. I don’t think it was supposed to be an insult, anyway.” She thought a minute, while Leda shook the cocktails, and then lowered her voice into an imitation of Lucifer imitating the Deep South, in his unconscionable Midwestern accent. 

“Looka, Maggie,” Susan said, and Leda started giggling. “What you’re a-doing issa dangerous thing to do. You’re-a—you’re-a—“ Leda laughed out loud, straining the cocktails into glasses, and Susan felt something glow in her stomach as she kept on: “you’re-a—foolin’ with sumpthin’ that—that nobody ought ta fool with!”

“Oh, he didn’t really!” Leda gasped, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief.

“He wanted to put it on at Cranston,” Susan said, dropping the horrible mixed accent. “But I’m afraid it was a little advanced.” 

She felt proud of herself for that: I’m afraid it was a little advanced. It sounded like something a sophisticated married woman would say; one who lived in Bridgeport and went to the theater. 

Leda brought over the martinis. They clicked their glasses together and drank.

“Olives and everything,” Susan said.

“Well,” said Leda, showing her dimples. “It is Christmas.” 

Leda’s place was only big enough for one chair, a table and a bed. So Leda sat against the bed pillows, piled against the wall. Susan tried to sit on the chair, but the seat was a little broken. So she sat on the floor with her back against the bed, next to Leda’s dangling legs. 

Susan made sure just to sip at her martini. She sipped it awfully fast.

“You know what they did put on,” Susan said, talking too fast again, not wanting to lose the mood now that she’d made Leda laugh. “They put on Our Town, you know, have you ever, um. Did you ever see it?” 

She was kicking herself for asking a thing like that, but Leda just said “I’ve read it.” 

Leda had never read much, before. Susan supposed they must have had a library at the hospital. She took a breath. 

“Okay,’ said Susan, ‘So. Lucifer moaned and complained about how provincial they were being, putting it on. But he still got the part of the Stage Manager. You remember that part at the end, where they’re all sitting around on chairs, still as death, because, well—“

“They’re supposed to be dead,” Leda supplied.

“Right,” said Susan, “And it’s supposed to feel kind of, of sad and nostalgic? Because one man killed himself by hanging, and another woman, I don’t know, died having a baby, or—I don’t remember, but anyway, most of the kids in the drama department were also in the Outdoors Club, right?”

“Okaay,” said Leda, wary, starting to giggle.

“And the day before opening night, they all went out into the woods on a picnic. Only they happened to put down in an area with a massive amount of—“

“Oh no,” Leda said.

“—poison ivy,” Susan said, nodding.

“Oh god, no,” Leda said, hand to her mouth.

“Yes! And so they were sitting there in their chairs on opening night, kind of twitching and scooting, and all of the scooting legs of the chairs together got really loud, and—,”

“Oh lord,” Leda said again, tipping over on the bed, laughing.

“—and you could just see Lucifer getting madder and madder about it as he talked, because he’d told them not to get into that poison ivy, and now he had to make his sad speech over the noise of all these scooting chairs—“ 

And then Susan was laughing too hard to keep talking, and Leda was curled up in a laughing ball behind her, and Leda made a little hiccuping sound and Susan gave a great gasp and turned to wipe her eyes on the quilt, with Leda wiping hers behind her, and—

“I’m not sure how to feel that you go to Rosie’s,” Leda said. 

She was still curled on her side, staring at the back of Susan’s head, but she wasn’t laughing at all. Susan didn’t know what to say. The radiator was noisy by the window.

“I mean,” said Leda, blankly, “I think I should feel bad. Because they told me over and over, how I would be harmless as long as I didn’t—“ Susan’s hands clenched in the coverlet. “—as long as I stayed away from normal girls,” Leda said. “But with you it was already too late. So I should probably feel bad.“

“Don’t,” Susan said. She rested her head on the mattress, and looked up into Leda’s eyes. Her stomach still hurt from laughing. She put her hand on the side of Leda’s curled knee. “Come on,” she said, “don’t beat yourself up.”

“But you know?” Leda went on, as if Susan hadn’t said anything. “You know what I feel? I feel relieved. Why do I feel relieved, Mitch? Why is that?”

“Come on,” said Susan, petting Leda’s thigh, scooting up the bed so she was sitting against Leda’s knees. “It’s not all your fault.”

Leda didn’t answer. 

“It’s not,” Susan said. “Not all of it.” She felt a little tug at the corner of her mouth, then. She felt brave. She said: “Only the parts where you lied, and yelled, and cold-shouldered me, and then sold me out to the Dean to save your own—ow, hey!”

But it had only been a soft push to her ribcage with Leda’s foot. Susan was glad for it, because when she looked at Leda, Leda was smiling again, propping herself on one elbow, saying “Oh, you got hard, kid, you really did, I saw it right away,” and Susan laughed and grabbed Leda’s foot that was trying to kick her shoulder again, and scraped Leda’s sole with her thumbnail so that Leda shrieked and kicked out, and her heel hit Susan in the mouth and Susan’s lip split open on her teeth. 

“Oh shit,” Leda said, kneeling, up, still breathless, to look at the cut. “Oh, shit, Mitch, I’m sorry.” 

“No, that’s—okay, I’m—,’ Susan said, and then stopped because her bottom lip felt hot, and slick, and Leda was smoothing through the blood with the pad of her thumb.  

“I’m sorry,” Leda said again. 

“It’s not your fault,” Susan said, moving her lips underneath Leda’s warm fingers on her mouth. 

The pads of those fingers had a texture different than Susan remembered, different from back when Leda had slipped them inside the buttons of Susan’s back-to-school pajama tops and Susan had let her feel her skin. They were rougher now, drier, stained and callused on the smoking sides. Leda was staring at them skidding across Susan’s blood-wet bottom lip, and Susan was staring at Leda’s staring eyes.

Susan had a mad flash of smoking by the municipal Christmas tree. She thought: Leda wasn’t the only one with a different texture to her now. 

So she breathed in, and kept looking at Leda, and leaned forward to open her mouth around Leda’s rough new fingers. She sucked around them, and Leda’s head jerked up, her mouth opening in a pale, slick crescent. 

Leda’s eyes opened up, too, doe-black and different. Somehow bigger than they’d been in the girls’ room at Cranston, when Leda had tipped her head forward and her wavy black curtain of hair had come down in front of her face. Now they looked huge and deep-deep-deep and liquid. When Susan ran the tip of her tongue up between Leda’s fingers, the painted lids fell closed. 

Leda made a muffled whimpering sound, and that was one thing the same. Susan nipped with her teeth. She sucked two fingers deep and smiled a little and flicked her tongue over the webbing between Leda’s first and middle fingers. Leda made a noise like dying, and that was new. 

At some point Susan had closed her eyes. When she opened them she saw Leda had opened hers, too, staring at Susan’s face, her mouth open, panting loud in the tiny room.

Susan thought, then, all of a sudden, how she must seem to Leda: at loose ends in the city on a weekday; suggesting right off that they go to Rosie’s, rather than any other bar; and now—now this. She must seem like some kind of tart. And suddenly she wanted that. Wanted Leda to think she was—was daring, and dirty; that she’d spent the last ten years with every woman, hell, every man in Chicago, that she’d become anything, anything at all except—

In one motion she pulled Leda’s fingers from her mouth and pushed back on Leda’s shoulders, pushed her back into a sitting position against the pillows against the wall. She slung one leg over Leda’s thighs so she was straddling her, and Leda looked shocked, and hungry, and Susan grabbed at Leda’s hair though it was too short, now, for grabbing, and snaked her tongue into Leda’s mouth. 

She could feel Leda’s chest moving against her own stomach, quick with Leda’s so-fast, too-fast breath. Susan might have stopped, except that Leda was making that old familiar sound, that pleading, whimpering sound that she’d only made the last time they’d been together back at Cranston. Susan hadn’t believed she’d devoted a lot of thought to that sound in the years since, but now it was like she’d been starving for it. She teased with her teeth and her tongue-tip at Leda’s lips. The slick light gloss came off them and Susan pressed down into the kiss, and could taste them getting pinker and pinker and pinker.  

Leda’s wet fingers were twined with Susan’s, and Susan wanted to shove them down under her pink tweed skirt and between her legs, and feel Leda’s calluses and her sucked-soft skin slide inside her own body. The thought made Susan pant, and whine, and she had to break away from kissing Leda in order to breathe against her neck, hiking up her own skirt, moving Leda’s hand, but halfway through the motion, she leaned back and said “Oh, damn,” and laughed, breathless.  

Forty minutes waiting for Leda outside Marshall Field’s, and she hadn’t changed or even taken them off: she was still trapped in her old pantyhose, with the ladder at the knee. 

“Damn,” she said again, pulling back, but Leda seemed to misunderstand. She gasped something like “No, wait,” and pulled Susan back over her by the waist with her dry hand, and reached with her wet hand under Susan’s skirt and cupped her hard between her legs, right through her tights. 

“Leda,” Susan said, “I can’t breathe.” 

“Do you want to?” Leda said, not letting go. Her fingers clenched twice in quick succession. Susan jerked her hips; breathed hard through her mouth.

“I want—“ Susan said, “I want you to do that inside, inside me. I want to feel you, I don’t—“ Leda sucked in a breath and Susan laughed a little, wildly, “—Jesus, Leda, let me get these damn things off.”

Leda pulled her hand back, biting her lip, looking weirdly scared. Susan leaned down and kissed her again, soft, like Leda used to do when she wanted Susan to think she was taking care of her, that she’d always take care of her. Susan kissed Leda gentle, and soft, and reached up under her own skirt to slide her nylons off, and kissed Leda soft as she undid the clasp and the zipper on the back of her skirt, and kissed her gentle as she pushed everything to the floor with her foot, and then bit Leda’s bottom lip, hard, and Leda’s whole lovely body convulsed and she moaned.

There was triumph in that, flooding all Susan’s limbs. A smile stretched her mouth. 

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, a growl in her throat, and took back Leda’s hand, and sucked her first two fingers back into her mouth. 

Leda’s wide eyes: green rimmed with white rimmed with heavy black. Susan sucked hard, and slow: once, twice, three times, and then pulled the hand down into Leda’s lap, with the fingers curled upward on one thigh. 

“Is this—can I do this?” Susan said, and Leda gasped “Yeah, yes. Mitch. Yes,” and kept panting those short little words as Susan in just her fitted white blouse straddled Leda’s thigh and steadied Leda’s fingers, and pushed them wet inside her wet wet oh god inside her body.

“Goddamn, kid,” Leda said, her voice unsteady and her new eyes huge, staring down at where Susan was grinding herself down onto Leda’s hand. “You grew up, some.”

Susan didn’t want to talk about that.

She put her hands up and grabbed hold of Leda’s shoulders so she could fuck herself harder on Leda’s hand. She pushed her knees forward so one was snugged up between Leda’s legs, which were—no, thought Susan, which were still in her capris, how was Leda still dressed? Susan hadn’t planned well, she had messed things up, and now—and now—. Leda curled her fingers a little, and Susan cried out.

On the sides of Susan’s bare knee the black cotton was cool. Susan had a crazy moment of thinking cotton, in December, lord, she must freeze, but the front of her knee where it wedged between Leda’s legs was hot and soft and lovely even through layers of fabric, and Susan found she would much, much rather think of that.

She knelt up, again, and quick, again. She let Leda’s fingers slide in her, almost out of her, and when she did it she would nudge forward with that knee and Leda’s breath would catch, and Susan would let go with her thigh muscles and slam back down, hard against Leda’s thigh until she was full, and Leda would curl her fingers and pull against Susan’s pubic bone from the inside, and Susan would exhale on a cry. She did it again, and again and—and again, her fingers digging into Leda’s shoulders.

“I—we should—“ Susan panted, because Leda was still completely dressed, “We need to—oh god—Leda, we need to—,” but she couldn’t stop, couldn’t stop, it was too much, and Leda said “Shh, Mitch, let me,” and pulled Susan further forward in her lap. 

Her knee was tighter now between Leda’s thighs, their chests almost together. Leda was holding her down by the hips, stopping her from moving up and down like she wanted. 

Susan was gasping. She felt like whining. Like begging. 

“Shhh,” said Leda, “it’s okay, it’s okay, kid.” She raised her thigh to roll Susan’s hips, and curled her thumb into her palm so Susan could grind against it. 

Susan did. She did. She did. 

Leda pulled Susan’s hips forward and back in waves, tightening and releasing the muscles of her hand, inside-outside Susan: clutch. She arched her hips up into Susan’s leg, biting hard on her pink pink lip and staring. Susan stared back at her, mouth open. 

Clutch. There was a sheen of sweat at Leda’s collarbone where the neck of her cardigan gave way to skin. Susan bent and sucked at it and tried to shove her hips forward, desperate and shivery. She straightened up and Leda pushed her face against Susan’s overheated neck, talking in her ear.

Clutch and Susan let her head drop. Forehead on Leda’s shoulder and moaning like breathing, while Leda chanted breathless above her, “You’re good, you’re so good, Mitch, come on, show me, let me—oh—let me make you feel good, let me, god, let me.”

Clutch and Susan’s back arched hard and she wailed up at the ceiling and— 

Clutch and Leda’s hips slammed up into Susan’s and—

Clutch and hold and hold and Susan shuddered, and shouted, and came.

And then—no, Susan thought. Wait. No. Because Leda was untangling them, one body from another, and Leda was pulling the quilt over Susan to keep her warm, and Leda was running a hand down her back, and Susan was—Susan was crying.

Susan was crying. 

Susan cried. Leda petted the small of her back. Leda lit two cigarettes, and gave one to Susan, and they smoked and listened to the traffic noise and the hum of the radiator.

“I stopped being mad at you,” Susan said at last, unsteady, wiping her eyes with the quilt, “because you were—.” She took a deep breath. “They told me you were sick. That you would never be all right again. I never thought about you getting better, or—or running out of money, or working at Marshall Field’s. It seems so, I don’t know. Ordinary.” 

“You can be mad at me now,” Leda said. “If you want.”

Susan smoked a while, looking up at the ceiling. She wasn’t crying anymore. At last she said, “I guess I don’t feel that way. Not right now.”

“Okay,” said Leda.

Down on Green Street, the traffic noise was picking up. Susan thought about the clerks and the high school students and all the young mothers in Grant Park that morning. She thought how, now, they were all changing course. They’d gone out into the city, headed in a certain direction, and now they were all being pulled back the way they’d come. Like there was some kind of elastic, attaching them to home.

“Did it help you get better?” Susan asked, sudden in the quiet room. “Being in the hospital?”

Leda snorted. “Being in the hospital made me a hell of a lot worse. Getting out made me a little better.”

“Oh,” Susan said. 

She could hear Leda lick her lips.

“Look,” Leda said, “you should know I’m not—I’m better but I’m not better, Mitch. I’m still pretty awful, sometimes. I’m just—going day to day, and I don’t know how I’m doing half the time. It’s not like I couldn’t crack up again, I’m not—I’m not cured.”

Susan put out her hand for Leda’s on the quilt. There was still a pale band of skin on her fourth finger, even though she’d gone walking in Reno every day. 

She thought of all the times she’d remembered Leda: in the hospital after her skiing accident; and in Buffalo on her honeymoon; and on that covert trip to Rosie’s when she’d run into Lucifer and his tall, tall, tall black-Irish lover, and he’d said “My dear girl, you can’t have thought—? Well, plainly I was nowhere near sufficiently witty.”

She thought of herself and Robin Maurer, holding each other up on graduation night; and of throwing away Robin’s Christmas cards, and eating Librium in the kitchen before Roger’s company dinners; and of her cousin on the phone saying “It’s been five years, Susan, I know your dad wants grandkids”; and of coming back to her wood-panelled Reno motel room, sitting on the toilet and dabbing at her bleeding nose. I’m not cured, Leda had said. 

“No,” Susan said, squeezing Leda’s hand. “No. Neither am I.”