"Did you get the tickets I sent you?"
"I did." Harley, curled up on her armchair, telephone wedged against her shoulder, fans herself with the prinouts, identical but for the name and seat number. She's sweating under her comfort blanket, her vegetable broth steaming on the coffee table. "But why two?"
"Did you think your... your friend wouldn't be invited? It's not every day that grandmother turns one hundred. Besides, she's been pestering me with questions about you and Christina. 'When are the girls coming?' she says. 'I don't know,' I say, 'Harleen is a hard one to get a hold of.' But she won't hear it. 'She's your daughter.' As if I didn't know that. I was there when you were born. 'Perhaps that's why,' I say. 'Children don't talk to their parents, you know how they are.'"
"I know," Harley interjects before her mother rehashes their entire dialogue in spot-on tone imitation, and takes a sip from her soup. It's just the right temperature now but she's lost her appetite. "I'm sorry. I've been sick."
Unauthorized by Harley, her body simply took the time-out it needed. It tolerates Harley's restless diligence only for so long, standing by watching as Harley continues to ignore its needs until it decides enough's enough. Then, it'll invite some virus in to make its nest, furnish the walls, put up some flowers. Give the place a personal touch and a right homey feel. Unfortunately, what's a nice environment for the virus is a mess for Harley. She's still cleaning up after the unwanted house guest.
It's times like this, when she's bound to her bed because her joints are aching and her muscles gelatinous, that she has time for the very thing she has been actively avoiding.
She has time to think.
And she will think of many things, mostly mundane, like which of her groceries are going bad soon, which bills she has yet to pay, which appointments are coming up and which of these she'll have to cancel. Those kinds of mundane things. To occupy herself between bouts of sleep and lamenting her condition, she makes sure to spam her friends' inboxes with a detailed account of her misery. As per usual, Jonny has nothing but derisive comments for her, Pammy a slew of feel-good recipes, and Selina an itinerary of shops they'll hit and cafés they'll stop by once she's better.
It helps to occupy her mind for a while, but there are stretches when no one answers or she's too exhausted to scroll through her timeline again, yet not tired enough to fall asleep.
"You can stay with us," her mother's voice drifts through the haze of Harley's thoughts. "It's closer. You don't have to get a hotel room."
"I'm not sure we even... she—"
"I will hear no excuses this time. Think of grandmother."
"I mean, are you sure? We don't want to impose."
"What are you talking about? You're family. Of course I'm sure. Or is your... is Christina too fine for us?"
"No, ma. She's fine, just fine."
It's unclear whether her mother disapproves of Christina on principle or just as a person. From the start, she's had trouble referring to Christina as Harley's girlfriend, as though giving her that label would not only sully herself but Harley too: it would mean acknowledging Harley as a lesbian, something unheard of, a freak of nature. (None of her siblings display this sort of deviance, so who's to say baby Harleen hadn't been switched out in the hospital?) Her parents accept it, in the way parents accept every phase their children go through – with a lot of grouching and head-shaking and asking God what is becoming of the world.
But of course we love you anyway.
Anyway. That's all she can ask for, really. It would be nice not to feel like her parents were biding their time, waiting for Harley to come to her senses and choose a husband already, but in the grand scheme of things it's not so bad. She can live with their lack of understanding.
Then there's her great-grandmother, a wise woman with a spirit too great for her diminutive frame. She has never questioned Harley's heart, not when she was playing with toy cars in the mud, getting her overalls and her hair dirty, not when she was beating up the boys in kindergarten, not when she was playing house with two girl dolls, or later when the doll wives shared one husband they both loved. It wasn't a pattern she had observed in the parochial world of family relations, but it felt natural to her.
Let the girl love, her great-gran used to say.
"So you're coming?"
"Good, your father will pick you up from the airport."
The great vagueness of conversations that dance around a third person who is implicitly invited, yet unwanted all the same. It would no doubt please her mother if Harley would offer up another excuse as to why Christina was unable to attend this time, but they both know her great-grandmother would be sorely disappointed if she did.
She adores Christina and keeps asking them when she and Harley are going to get married and have kids. This surprised Harley the first time, because she would have expected her great-gran to share her granddaughter's views. Unless her great-gran is hard-of-hearing as well as myopic, there's no way she could have mistaken Christina for a boy.
It turned out that her great-gran is a staunch supporter of gay rights and, like Harley, a romantic at heart. She wants a life of great feeling and adventure for her favorite great-grandchild, and nods warmly whenever she or Christina related tales of domesticity. Harley suspects the old lady to be gay herself, but unaware and living vicariously through them.
These things didn't exist in my time, she'd say, as if love was a recent phenomenon. You'd marry and have children and that was the end of that.
Her great-gran was the first to extend her arms and welcome Christina to the family, as though she saw herself in her: the ambition, the fearlessness, the ready laugh. The sinister humor that gave even her hardened brothers the creeps. When Christina tells jokes, sometimes you'd have to wait for her bark of laughter after the punchline, because her delivery is so serious you'd believe anything she says.
She was good like that, drawing you into her story, taking you around on her terms, selling you scraps for gold. You'd buy them and ask for more. But be advised not to ask for too much, because that would never stand. The whole world is hers, and Christina not one to share.
Harley learned that the hard way. Despite all the secrets Christina divulged, her life remained an enigma to Harley, if a glamorous one, right up until Christina walked out on her without so much as a backward glance, as if, from that moment on, Harley had ceased to be part of her reality.
Maybe her mother had been right, maybe it had all been a phase with Christina – or for Christina: some pleasant diversion from the ennui of existence.
This happened almost a year ago, which brings her to her current predicament: she hasn't told anyone about the breakup. In itself. this would be her least concern... if she hadn't lied to her family about it every time they asked. As far as they're concerned, she's still in a caring relationship with Christina, who makes her living as a comedian traveling the world. It's believable enough and gives Harley leeway with her excuses all throughout the year.
To be less conspicuous, Harley has established an elaborate mental catalog of places they've been and conversations they've had, just so she can pepper her answers with juicy tidbits that will satisfy even the nosiest of relatives.
It was misguided, she knows, but she didn't want to disappoint her great-gran, who was so fond of Christina, or give her parents the satisfaction of having been right all along, about this relationship and why it was no good for Harley. Her pride couldn't handle that blow, after she'd defended their relationship for so long. All she wants is for her feelings, for herself, to be valid. In a way, she thought that if she played out the picture of a happy, loving relationship, no matter if it's imagined or not, it would somehow legitimize herself.
And now, with her great-gran's one hundredth birthday around the corner, Harley's in a fix: she can either fail the woman yet again by saying Christina couldn't make it, or she could risk giving her a heart-attack by coming clean and admitting they're no longer together. Or, she could stay away from the celebration altogether, by missing her flight perhaps, so she wouldn't have to own up to anything in person. No, that last one is really a non-option. Who knows how many more birthdays the old woman will live to see? Harley has to be there, with or without Christina.
Wait a minute. With? Harley's spoon clatters into her soup bowl. If there's any chance, any chance at all, to show up with Christina at her side, she has to take it. For her great-gran's sake!
Harley nearly throws her phone across the room in her haste to pick it up. The number she hasn't used in almost a year, is still on speed-dial.
It's only when the line connects and the first on-hook signal vibrates in her ears that Harley realizes what she's doing. Her throat seizes and her heart starts beating its way out of her body. She can't move, can't hang up, can't speak. Please don't pick up. Every ring is a jab deeper into her chest.
"Hello?" There it is, Christina's voice, drawn-out and amused, as though she's recognized the number, as though she's been waiting for Harley to give in and call her.
Harley manages no more than a noisy exhalation, bordering on a whine.
"Harley?" the musical voice asks again. "Something the matter?"
"Yeah, I..." Harley stretches out her arm to hold the phone away while she steadies her breathing, quite audibly so. "Hey," she tries again, smoother this time, once she's done, "any chance you're in town soon?"
"That depends on whether this is a booty call or not."
Is she fucking serious? Harley doesn't want to think about sex right now. Her blood pressure has just evened out. "I got a favor to ask. It's a big one."
"Okay, I'm all ears."
"Can we meet?"
"I'll be at my hotel later tonight. If you want, we could get some drinks at the bar." Again, that suggestive tone. As though she never walked out of Harley's life and had just been taking an extended vacation, all the months in between suspended in time, apart from them like they'd never been.
"You're in Gotham?"
"Arrived today. Isn't that why you called? I thought you heard."
"No, I didn't." Who would have told her? They don't have any mutual acquaintances that Harley knows of. And if they had, Harley's not sure she'd have wanted them to ever mention Christina's name in her presence unless it was to warn her of her arrival to avoid possible sightings.
"Well, you know now."
"Are you free for lunch tomorrow then?" (It's happened often enough, when Harley was walking to the subway or exiting a department store, that a stranger's face among the milling masses elicited a flash of memory, brief, like a camera going off, and she'd turn, even when she knew Christina was nowhere close to Gotham, turn as if to glimpse that memory again, to catch it and bring it back to life, to unfold Christina from the crumpled pages of her recollection.)
"You're not going to tell me now? That's evil. How will I sleep, not knowing?" She chuckles. It's all a joke to her, all of it: their relationship, their breakup, Harley's pain. "Fine. I'll take the time, because it's you. And because I'm curious."
"Lunch it is." In spite of everything, nostalgia – that happy, toxic place – bursts through the cracks of her resentment, and before she knows it, she suggests, "The usual spot around twelve?" What is usual after a year, no, more than that? They haven't been there together since the early days of their relationship, when it had been budding like the flowers decorating the café.
"Do they still serve that divine quiche you recommended the first time around?"
So she does remember it. "It's a special now and then."
"And that kale smoothie that looked like it came out of a lawn mower but tasted delicious?"
Christina's laughter is contagious and Harley finds herself sucked in, remembering why it had been so easy to fall in love with this woman. She has to cut this short, or else she won't escape the maelstrom that's raging inside her. "Let's check it out tomorrow, okay?"
"Sure, sure. Will you be wearing anything cute that'll make it easier to find you?"
The lump is back in Harley's throat. "I'll wave you over if I'm there before you. I trust you'll do the same." She cringes at her choice of words.
"Don't I even get a hint?" Christina pries again.
"See you tomorrow," Harley says and hangs up, the word 'family' on her lips, ready to be formed around fricatives, bilabials and lateral approximants. That was close.
Tomorrow is going to be tough. She needs to be prepared if she wants to prevent herself from cracking like an eggshell, like dry plaster. She'll have to choose her words carefully. Write them out perhaps, learn them by heart, and recite them unfeelingly. A request for the good of an old woman, who'd delight in seeing them together again. One last performance of their romantic comedy as a birthday gift, so to speak.
Harley wonders how she's supposed to live through the entire charade in front of her family, with a live Christina by her side, when she's already struggling to keep herself together listening to Christina's disembodied voice. The weight of memories, both good and bad, and of the emotions inextricably linked to these memories, hover behind her, just out of sight. One wrong move and whatever's holding them at bay might burst like a soap bubble, and they'd crash over her like water out of a broken dam. But that's for later. For now, she has an appeal to compose and a mind to quiet.
She brews herself a cup of her favorite tea, the one with the cocoa nibs in it, texts Pammy for mental support, and gets to work.