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Checkerboard Chicks

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“Let’s see—if I take 42nd Street to Avenue Q, I’ll arrive at a fine, fine neckline. But if I ease on down the road to Baltimore, I’ve probably gone too far.”

Raven gazes at the breast pocket of her playbill-patterned pajamas, where an index finger zips along the flips in Tracy Turnblad’s bulky blue ‘do.

Hardly an ultra clutch. That doesn’t stop Raven from feeling something too: more curiosity than all the cats in Cats combined.

“Maybe I’ll just stick to Easy Street,” Chelsea mumbles, moving her hand to the clownishly red rectangle shrouding the psychic’s shoulder. “Yep, I think I’m gonna like it here,” she declares as she fondles the foundling’s name with fondness.

Raven looks at Chelsea the same. If Little Orphan Annie grew out of her ugly duckling stage—no, if she delivered a good hard knock to its homely heinie—she’d look exactly like Raven’s best friend.

“Jen played Annie once,” Chelsea shares. “And not just any Annie. Annie Oakley.”

Jen again.

Chelsea’s camp crony. It wasn’t even a normal camp, like Drama or Space or Fat. No, they’d met at Vegetarian Camp, where their identical interests had sparked an instant interest in each other. Platonically, she hoped. Moronically, she’d thought familiarity would breed contempt.

If Raven and Chelsea were coffee and cream, then Jennifer and Chelsea were peanut butter and…Chelly.

Poor Chels, saddled with such an unfathomably stupid nickname. “Chelly,” the psychic sneers. “Sounds like some nasty off-brand British celery.”

But her attention veers back to Chelsea when she feels the redhead’s hands clasping hers.

“Rae, why do you look like you’re about to break into the musical number ‘You Can’t Stop the Beatdown’? I thought you and Jen were friends now.”

“Friends? With the visitor from Planet Save-the-Earth?”

Chelsea releases Raven.

Raven releases a squeak of indignation.

“Chels, she picked a science museum over a shopping mall. That’s almost as bad as Bayside High picking Stinky Sturky for student council president over you.”

“Rae—”

“Chels, the girl hates hairspray.”

“Are you kidding? I love Hairspray!” Jennifer enthuses as she enters Chelsea’s bedroom. “The first time I saw it, I went out and bought saddle shoes just like Penny Pingleton wears. Then I returned them because they look too much like pandas and I worried I was committing animal cruelty.”

Raven tilts toward Chelsea. “The wacker the berry…”

Jen laughs. It’s not exactly Lina Lamont, but it’s hardly Lena Horne either. “I’m joking,” the plaid-clad blonde says as she crosses to the bed. “Seriously, Raven, I’m not that far-gone.” She drops her toiletries bag into her duffel and plops onto Chelsea’s quilt. “Ooh, cute PJs, Rae. Did you make them? Chelly’s always bragging about your sartorial superpowers. She says you have a real gift.”

“I sure do,” the psychic preens, and leans against the desk. “These were a birthday present from Chels. I made the ones she’s wearing.”

The redhead strikes a My Fair Ladylike pose, a complement to Raven’s Pink Ladylike one, as she models the designer’s creation: chartreuse satin bedecked with purple piping and fastened with black-and-white checked buttons. Standing on the light brown carpet, Chelsea resembles a flag planted atop a sandcastle.

Jen looks like she’s wanting to capture that flag. “You look adorable, Chelly,” she fawns. “You have such a gorgeous figure.”

“You want to talk gorgeous figures?” Chelsea counters. “Raven here makes an ampersand look like an exclamation point.”

“Chels!” the designer demurs, even as she twirls a braid around her finger like a not-so-dim Kim MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie.

But if Raven has put on a happy face, the blonde has all but donned a mask of tragedy.

“Uh…why don’t we play a game?” the redhead suggests.

The mask is replaced with its cheerier counterpart. “I’m on board. Let’s play Checkers.”

“But that’s a two-person activity,” Chelsea points out.

Raven flicks Chelsea’s fox-colored locks over her shoulder. “So you be red and…I’ll be black.”

You’ll be black-and-blue if you don’t back off, Jen’s scowl says.

“Let’s pick something a little more inclusive,” the redhead referees. “There’s an ar-Rae of things we can do, because Rae’s here and—”

“I’m happy she is,” Jen says with all the sincerity of a Wish You Were Here postcard. “Especially on the last night of my visit with Chelly. Look, even if I didn’t mind having an ampersand between us, I’m kind of sour on slumber parties.”

“Did something happen at one?” Chelsea inquires, joining Jen on the bed.

With the redhead on the blonde’s left side, Raven has no choice but to take her side too.

“You know how I played Marty in my school’s production of Grease?” Jen recalls, and Chelsea nods. “In the sleepover scene, she has that solo, ‘Freddy, My Love,’ about her long-distance boyfriend. Well, to make sure I sounded convincing, when I practiced, I’d picture someone I like. Then I got all serenade-y and substituted my crush’s name for Freddy’s—but only at home. Also, on opening night. Everything was peachy keen right up until the end of the number. That’s when the name came out wrong. And, incidentally, so did I.”

Raven’s stomach twists like a lipstick tube. She glances at Chelsea. There’s a slight change in the size of her eyes, but for Raven, who’s grown accustomed to her face expressing everything, it feels less like a psychic reading and more like a cold reading.

“Was your crush in the audience?” Chelsea asks.

“She doesn’t even go to my school,” Jen answers.

The pronoun nearly causes Raven to shut down.

“The school of which I am now the resident dyke drama queen,” Jen concludes, and exudes a dash of discomfort with a side of pride. “I just wish I’d told my friends and especially my parents in private first. They’re still…adjusting. At least I don’t have to play it straight anymore, although I really excelled at it. Oh well. There are worse things I could do—like go with a boy or two.”

“Didn’t people try and figure out her identity?” Chelsea probes. “There must’ve been at least one other person at your school with the same name who everybody assumed was your crush.”

Jen shakes her head, hair swishing back and forth like a poodle skirt. “I didn’t say her actual name. It was a cute little nickname.”

“Rae and I have cute little nicknames!” Chelsea chirps. “Just like our friend Eddie and his girlfriend Chantel. See, one day we saw Cookie Lips and Snookie Puss Eskimo-kissing. I turned to Rae and said, ‘How come we don’t have any cute little nicknames?’ And Rae said—”

“‘Because we’re not a couple, Chels’?” Jen jumps in.

“Actually,” Raven replies, but there’s no victory in her voice, “I said, ‘Okay, Biscuit Head.’”

Jen’s eyebrows lift—so high, they make a bouffant look like a buzz cut. “So you and Chelsea are a couple?”

An uncoordinated cancan commences inside Raven’s heart. “Yeah, we’re a couple,” she falters, then alters: “A couple of home skillet biscuit…heads.”

Chelsea has the look of a stagehand who’s opened the curtain way too early, like before the players have even pulled up their pettipants. “We should put this to bed,” she says, ushering the others off the blanket. “If there’s anything better than biscuit head, it’s bed head. Goodnight.”

“So long, farewell,” Jennifer chimes in, and climbs in after Chelsea.

“You ain’t going to fare all that well,” Raven mutters.

Once upon a mattress, she isn’t shy about segregating them.

“Raven, I have shared this bed with Chelsea for the past two nights,” the hurdle huffs, as if she can guilt her off the quilt.

“So it’s time to change it up a little. I hear you.”

“No,” the blonde balks, and now she’s attempting to tilt her off. “Raven, would you please stop trying to sleep with Chelly?”

“I’m not trying to sleep with Chelly. I’m trying to sleep with Chels.”

Her correction is accompanied by an ejection. Faster than a disc can slide between squares on a checkerboard, it’s curtains for Raven’s attempted bedfellowship. First she ends up on the floor. Then she ends up out the door.

Raven takes her walking papers in strides befitting any number of embittered heroines in Les Misérables. “I got a cute little nickname for Jennifer: Jenny from the Chopping Block.”

Inside the guest room is a bed she hasn’t made but still has to lie in.

All because some light bright Amber Von Tussle knockoff has designs on Chelsea. “That’s my job,” the diva laments. “I’m the couturier up in here.”

Raven pinches the pin-uppity cartoon ingénue gracing the 42nd Street playbill on her pajama leg. It reminds her of Jennifer: wholesome and pure but not scared or unsure.

“Why am I even tripping?” she wonders.

Just because Jen played some sexy sharpshooter in a show does not mean she has a shot with Chelsea.

She’s certainly aiming high though.

Chelsea has the most nurturing nature of anyone Raven knows.

She always regards Raven with reverence, through eyes the color of a rocking horse.

Always responds to Raven’s jokes, with a laugh that makes the psychic want to slide down a banister.

Always says the sweetest things, through lips that look more lustrous than a lollipop and more malleable than a tape measure.

Chelsea Daniels is a scintillating synthesis of TinkerBell, the Fairy Godmother, and Glinda the Good Witch.

And straighter than a magic wand.

“Just like me,” Raven maintains.

But she sounds like she’s a few Technicolors short of Joseph’s fantasy frock.

“I really am lying in this bed,” the designer grumbles.

Being a closet clairvoyant makes Raven feel freakish.

Being a flamboyant boy-chaser makes her feel…the same, actually.

Still, just because she lives in San Francisco doesn’t mean she can go singin’ in the rainbow that she prefers dolls to guys.

She has no choice but to negate, fabricate, overcompensate.

Because to be young, metaphysically gifted, and black is one thing.

Well, three things.

One more would make four.

Or would that be two more?

If Chelsea is the shiny sole on a tap shoe, then Raven is the lone vamp on a saddle shoe: the black part that separates the white parts.

Being with Chelsea would mean being in an…integrated relationship.

And their…sameness would add yet another difference into the mix.

It’d be like if Shug Avery dated Mary Poppins—in a more faithful fashion, of course.

“You know what? That could work,” Raven realizes. She’s too beautiful for words and Chelsea is practically perfect, in every—

The present halts as Raven vaults into a vision. Eyes expansive, lips parted like a cootie catcher, she observes:

Jennifer draped over Chelsea like a feather boa constrictor.

“I know why Raven uses so much hairspray,” Jen quips. “She’s trying to spray away the gay.”

“Can it, Jen, please.”

“I’m sorry, Chelly. It’s just that all that air-polluting aerosol is unhealthy for the environment and she’s unhealthy for you.”

“Unhealthy for me? Come on, Jen, it’s not like I’m eating her. Although I imagine that would be more euphoric than caloric. You didn’t hear that.”

“I also didn’t hear Raven admit she likes you,” the blonde responds. “Look, Chelly, you have two girls with cute nicknames for you—one cuter than the other, but that’s beside the point. The point is you haven’t reciprocated. Is it because your feelings are undecided or…unrequited? Because for all we know, Raven could’ve given you that nickname just to humor you. Or humiliate you.”

“Raven wouldn’t—”

Before Chelsea can defend the designer, a pair of piggy bank-pink lips belonging to an underminer begin making change at the wrong time.

Raven oh-snaps out of her vision and into a tizzy. “That mall-dissin’, Chelsea-kissin’, vegetarian vixen.”

The psychic’s parade down the hall would make Cinderella’s huge-hoofed stepsisters look graceful. “If I find Chelsea on top of old Oakley…”

Upon reaching the redhead’s room, she all but dislodges its door. “Jennifer, you are barking up the wrong tree-hugger. Nobody messes around with my girl.”

But her girl is not around to mess with. The bed has a single occupant, who looks at Raven with an expression clearly cribbed from the misanthropic Miss Hannigan.

Raven straightens her pajamas, which is what fashionable people do when they’re trying to regain their composure.

Jen sets aside what looks like a diary. “Raven, what kind of girl do you think I am?” The question, typically teasing or indicative of indignation, is stated simply, seriously. “I’m not the girl next door—I don’t even live in California. I’m not the ingénue—I totally get what’s going on. I can’t be the prima donna—that role’s already taken. So that narrows it down to…the romantic rival.”

“You know what? You like Chelsea? Great, fine. I could care less.”

“Then why don’t you?”

Raven’s head spins like a Pick-a-Little Lady’s parasol. She’s picked on Jen a lot. Gazing at the girl, who looks as though she’s just been demoted from lead to ensemble, she wishes that Jen really were like Amber Von Tussle: bigoted, blond, and beautiful. That would make this so much easier.

“Because I like her too. And she might like me back.”

“I was beginning to think you needed a chandelier to fall on you.”

Of course that would be Chelsea’s cue to enter.

“I want both of you out—now,” Jen demands. “I mean that in every possible way, including the nicest. Hate to say it, Chelly, but I’d rather be your matchmaker than her understudy.”

Jen directs the duo through the door. The Evita-esque eviction is complete when she shuts it behind them.

Raven and Chelsea look at each other—just enough but not too much, like actresses cheating out to deliver dialogue.

Except they’ve both gone up on their lines.

Or maybe they just haven’t learned them yet.

As they make their way to the guest room, the designer gets that glittery jittery feeling she experiences right before an audition.

Once inside, that feeling is replaced by the giddy slightly saditty one she gets right before the cast list is posted.

“Did you have a vision that something was going to happen between Jen and me?” Chelsea asks.

Raven follows her to the bed. The blue coverlet reminds her of Belle’s provincial dress. There won’t be anything conservative about this conversation, the psychic foresees.

“She kissed you,” Raven answers. “Or she would’ve if I hadn’t stopped her. I had to save you, Chels.”

“For yourself?” Chelsea challenges.

Raven studies her. It’s like all the bulbs bordering the dressing room mirror are alive and well-lit.

“I knew you didn’t want to beat Jen down,” the redhead reveals. “You wanted to beat her to the punch.” Head high, voice low, she adds, “You know, I’m much brainier than the Scarecrow.”

Raven reaches for Chelsea’s hands. She’s not grasping at straw.

“But when you Amelia Bedelia your way through life the way I do,” Chelsea continues, “you really learn a lot. Like if people think I have no idea what I’m saying, I can get away with saying anything. I can even ask you why we don’t have cute little nicknames like a boy-girl couple does.” Chelsea squeezes Raven’s hands. Raven squeezes back. “Do you know how scared I was that you’d say what Jen said? ‘Because we’re not a couple, Chels’?”

“Do you know how scared I was that you’d have a cow when I didn’t?”

“If I’m the Scarecrow, then you’re the Cowardly Lion,” Chelsea assesses.

“I’d rather be somewhere over the rainbow with you than somewhere that’s green with envy by myself,” Raven confesses.

“I will never get over your rainbow,” the redhead ribs. “And by that I mean your adorably obvious gayness. If you want to convince everyone you’re straight, do it. Don’t overdo it. You’re, like, hysterically hetero with all that touchy-squealy stuff. I can hear the decibels—you lie high, Rae.”

Raven’s face scrunches up like a shower cap. “Was I like that with Devon too?”

“With and without, before and after,” Chelsea confirms. “But you had to keep it real somehow. So, for example, when your cousin Andrea came to visit and asked you to introduce her to the cheerleading squad you claimed to be captain of, you agreed by saying, in an adorably oblivious fashion: ‘Let’s go meet us some girls.’ That’s so gay, Rae.”

“Is that your cute little nickname for me? Gay Rae?”

“No, I’m calling you Meddle Head. The one with double D’s.”

“Chels!” Raven scolds, and folds her arms—around Chelsea. “I knew you were a theatre geek and a nature freak, but I had no idea you were a chest nut.”

“I love your psychic proportions,” the redhead reports, winding her arms around Raven.

Easily an ultra clutch. Raven can practically feel Tracy Turnblad’s hair straighten. Better her hair than my…self, the designer decides.

“Look at us, Rae. We’re closer than a checker on a square.”

Raven just can’t wait to be kinged—after she gets something off her chest. “Chels,” she says, putting a sliver of distance between them, “if I hadn’t meddled and stopped Jen from kissing you, would you? Have stopped her?”

Chelsea looks exquisitely composed as she regards Raven. If they were a musical, Raven would be the plot-holed book to Chelsea’s false-note-free score.

After a beat, the redhead responds with a bass clef-style smile. “Raven, Raven, Raven. Jen may have sung ‘Chelly, My Love’ instead of ‘Freddy, My Love,’ but since all I talked about at Veggie Camp was you, she knew it was hopeless for her to be so devoted. We go together.”

Unlike that song’s ludicrous lyrics, everything Chelsea is saying makes perfect sense.

“Rae, do you have any idea how many times I’ve stood in front of the mirror practicing my ‘I Have a Dreamgirl’ speech? I’d say, ‘Hey, Rae, I get a kick out of you,’ and you’d say, ‘Aw, that’s sweet, Chels, and I get a sidekick out of you.’ Then my determination would kick in, because it’s what I always wish for on each candle on every birthday: that I’ll get the girl who has to have the piece of cake with the flower on it. And you don’t even ask. You just take the cake.”

Raven’s eyes expand. Her lips part.

She isn’t having a vision.

She’s looking at one.

Her scene partner starts their duet.

It has an infectious hook: Chelsea’s fingers furled around Raven’s hips.

Raven meets her center stage.

When it comes to kissing Chelsea, there’s no business like slow business.

Everything about it is appealing:

The overture that relevés into the opening number, with its thoroughly modern melody.

The up-tempo standard that grapevines into the introspective piece, rendered with restrained longing.

The power ballad that pivots into the emotional climax, with its harmonically-held high notes.

Raven’s stomach flutters like a pair of jazz hands.

“That kiss is cravin’ some ravin’,” Chelsea says, through marvelously malleable lips that taste like cream soda-flavored lollipops. “You were on a roll.”

“Can I be in a role instead?” Raven requests. “I don’t want to be bosom buddies playing a pajama game. I want to be your girlfriend. We’re already a couple of enviably compatible checkerboard chicks.” She jiggles one of Chelsea’s black-and-white PJ buttons. “Let’s be a couple—for real.”

“You think we have a future together?”

“I’ll look into it,” the psychic predicts. “But I don’t have to, Chels. I already see a future with you.”

Chelsea’s grin makes Motormouth Maybelle’s colossal confidence seem supremely undersized. “A couple we are then,” she consents, splicing her fingers through Raven’s as if she’s lacing up a pair of saddle shoes.

Raven twists her palms against Chelsea’s, tying a knot they never can sever.

She hopes the same can be said of the redhead’s friendship with a certain vegetarian vocalist.

“You should probably get back to Jennifer,” Raven advises. “It’s her last night here and she wants to spend it with her friend Chelly.”

“Are you sure?”

“Just because she didn’t get the part she tried out for doesn’t mean she won’t accept a supporting role.”

Chelsea’s gaze is steadier than a rocking horse and as soft as a plush one. “It’s the only role I can offer.”

One singularly sensational kick line starts inside Raven’s heart.

“However,” Chelsea stipulates, “if you’re telling me that it’s time to say goodnight, my someone, then I am telling you I’m not going—without a goodnight kiss. In fact, I am not going without any kind of kiss from you ever again, because I have gone without kissing you for way too long.”

Chelsea’s approach to this two-person activity, as her activity partner has just discovered, is anything but black-and-white, which makes her a wiz at it.

“Slide Some Oil to Me” begins playing in Raven’s head, ball-changing the kick line into a time step. But while the Tin Man wants to lubricate his mind, it’s clear that Chelsea has other things on hers, and before long, the psychic is adequately anointed.

“Sweet dreams, dreamgirl,” Chelsea wishes, and kisses Raven once more before leading her lady into bed, which her leading lady can now lie in legitimately. The redhead caresses Raven’s shoulder, wrinkling the Annie playbill. For once, the designer has no desire to dis disheveled. “See you tomorrow, Meddle Head.”

Tomorrow.

It’s only a gay away.

Maybe Raven really will stop using hairspray—on the off-chance that she can, in fact, spray it away. Plus, it’s harmful to the environment, which Chelsea cares about.

Being with Chelsea means sharing her concerns.

Being with Chelsea gives Raven unbeatable affection—that transcends complexion, flouts doubt, upstages fear.

Best of all, being with Chelsea feels super natural.

(CURTAIN)