When the world is quiet and there are no husbands and no children and no restaurants, there’s a lot of time to think. It’s something, Gail realizes, she didn’t do a lot of before the virus. Her life became one born of necessity and survival. She didn’t like to think of herself as the type of person who did things only because she was expected to or because it was the “right thing.” She preferred instead to think of herself as an independent woman, one who did things when and how she wanted, made choices based strictly off her own desires and didn’t let anyone else get in the way. It wasn’t exactly true. It was certainly true that she lived with a hardened attitude, spoke up when she truly didn’t believe in something and always had a quick jab at the ready for anyone who crossed her. But when it came to the big choices, the things that truly influenced the places her life would go; she did the things she had to do with very little thought. With her marriages, with her son, she knew what the right thing was and she did it with little complaint. She put up and she shut up. It was the Gail Klosterman way.
Suddenly and all too quickly, her way didn’t matter. The sacrifices, the difficult choices, they were all for nothing. The only thing that was left of any of them was her own thoughts and memories. So she drank. And when Erica showed up, she drank some more. She didn’t think things could get worse. She was filled with regrets, nagging thoughts of what could and should have been. She mourned, she felt pain- and then there she was. It’s strange, she thinks, you spend a lifetime wishing for free reign of the world, to make your home wherever you want, to have anything you want without asking- but then you have the entire world in your hands and the only thing that feels like home is the one person in front of you. It’s a feeling she is entirely unprepared for.
She notices it quickly and doesn’t really fault herself for it. Any person, during any state of the world, at any time would find Erica beautiful. She’d have to be a sightless idiot not to admit it. She doesn’t even kick herself too hard when she notices her glances becoming gazes. But it makes her wonder, when she notices the younger woman looking back at her, if there is any chance in this godforsaken, desolate world that she’s looking at her for the same reasons. She catches sight of herself in the rear view mirror, in shop windows and the gleaming art of the too expensive homes they inhabit and she tells herself, no. No, that isn’t it. She understands that for her age, she is doing okay. Her figure is good, her skin is pretty tight and she thanks a god she’s not sure she believes in that she isn’t completely grey. But none of that matters, she convinces herself. And it isn’t being negative, she reasons, its being realistic. She’s old, with three more marriages under her belt than Erica’s had time for and she’s a woman. Two things that Erica would never want.
Once again she is in a world with no husbands, no children, no restaurants and one person she can’t confide her deepest thoughts in. She starts to wonder if of all her choices, her hardships, her many mistakes- this will be thing that drives her mad. What a way to go, she thinks. She doesn’t really spend that much time thinking about the implications of it all, doesn’t even really focus too hard on the words “lesbian” or “bisexual.” She’d loved men before, she could probably love one again. But she’d always noticed women and her pull to Erica, her attraction, physical and emotional isn’t even a question. It’s undeniable. She vows to suffer in silence. She can’t stand to lose the one thing she has in this world.
For the most part, she does okay. She’s not an animal, she thinks, not like a man. She can keep herself in line, her thoughts in check. But Erica doesn’t always make it easy. When you’re the only two people in the world, boundaries kind of go out the window. Erica doesn’t require much privacy. Gail tears her eyes away when the younger woman changes her clothes, leaves the room when she washes up and really only touches her when she initiates it- a hug here, a quick grab of the hand there or a shoulder rub. It’s hard not to reach out and touch sometimes, to really convince yourself you’re no longer alone. When the touches are longer, lingering and tempting, she reminds herself of that- she’s the only other person. The only person to fill the void of human contact in any way. It doesn’t carry that much meaning, it’s not as heavy with longing for Erica as it is for her.
But that isn’t true. Erica is bold. She’s never had a problem making a move, speaking up, getting exactly what she wants from who she wants, when she wants it. But she looks to the woman next to her and words fail her. She’s been with women before. This is different. The only two women left in the world- there’s only a one in seven billion chance, she thinks, that Gail would ever entertain the idea that they could be more than two women navigating the wreckage of the world together… as friends. She thinks about it often, more often than she should. Her looks linger, her touches too and sometimes she believes that it’ll be just enough to get by without completely losing her mind. There have been evenings with too much wine, too much talking, a verbal intimacy shared between them where she thinks, I could do this. I could just reach over and grab her. But she doesn’t. She knows it’s not worth the risk to gamble the one thing she thinks she could die without.
There is no sense of calm in the sky on this night. The clouds whirl in a way that seems almost sinister until the sky is too dark to even make out clouds. The home they’re in, a mid-century modern, has a few cracks in the windows, a door that gets caught when it’s halfway closed and the wind whips and whistles through the house loudly. They don’t mind. In the two separate bedrooms with secure windows and doors are the most comfortable, lavish beds they’ve encountered in weeks. In a world that’s been deafeningly silent, they both agree to endure a few hours of nature’s noise to enjoy the luxury of someone else’s high-priced beds. They were too tired to look further anyway.
Despite the exhaustion, Gail couldn’t sleep. She lay in bed, enjoying the feel of her aching bones as they sunk deeper into the feather top. A bottle of merlot lay in the crook of her left arm where she held a book. Overthinking wasn’t the only habit she’d picked up after the virus- reading quickly followed suit. She had her glasses perched on the edge of her nose as she slowly skimmed some thick green novel with gold lettering on the front that read “The After Party.” A story of women in the south that made her feel just a little more at home. She hoped the mix of wine and the lull of a mostly uninteresting story would soothe her into a long sleep, one that she hoped wouldn’t be as full of dreams of the young woman in the next room as they seemed to have been lately. Just as she felt herself losing focus on the words, drifting to somewhere else, a knock came on the door.
Gail straightened up, knocking her nose a little too roughly as she tried to rid herself of the thick framed glasses – a sign of her aging that she’d recently felt self-conscious of Erica seeing. “Come in,” She called loudly as she smoothed a hand over the back of her hair.
Long dark hair swung through the frame as Erica ducked her head in.“Sorry,” she began as she stepped in, closing the door behind her, “I couldn’t sleep so I thought I’d see if you were up.”
Gail laughed, a small easy sound that not everyone had been privy to in her life, “you didn’t have to knock.”
“I know,” Erica said quietly, shrugging as she crossed the room to the empty side of the bed.
“What are you reading?” The younger woman asked as she bounced onto the bed on her back, stretching out quickly with her legs crossed over one another, dark green shirt riding up her flat stomach in a way that Gail was desperately trying to ignore.
“Oh just some lame thing about rich ol’ southern women with lots of money and affairs.”
“Hmmm,” Erica’s eyes traveled the length of Gail’s body, from her face down to her toes, covered by the thick white blanket, “Did you ever have an affair, Gail?”
“What?” Another quick abrupt laugh, “Course not. No. I didn’t.” Gail shook her head a little, laughing lightly as she finally turned to the brunette who was staring up at her, “Why do you ask?” She asked with a small smile.
“Oh, I don’t know. I just know you were married a few times- I thought, maybe, I don’t know. I’m sure it would’ve been easy! Men love a sassy, beautiful southern woman, don’t they?”
“Well I don’t know, I was usually putting em’ in their place before they could let me know.”
After their shared laugh, it was silent for a moment before Erica spoke, eyes trained on her fingers that pulled on loose threads of the duvet, “I kind of had an affair once.”
“You did?” Gail asked in surprise, “And how did you do that?”
“It just kind of happened, I guess, I was young. Well, younger” she corrected, used to Gail’s taunting. “You are and always have been young” Gail would say with an eye roll.
She continued, “We worked together but not in the same department so I didn’t know her very well, not well enough to realize she was married.”
Gail could feel her heart rate pick up in her chest. She was surprised at how unsurprised she was to hear Erica mention a woman in a romantic sense. It was like having someone reinforce something you already knew to be true. It was exciting, exhilarating even but not entirely shocking. She kept her mouth shut, waited for Erica to go on.
“It’s kind of hard to remember!” Erica laughed, seeming a little uncomfortable with her admission “With all that’s happened, I sort of forgot. Besides it was a long time ago and it was a short affair. She was older, married. I figured it out fairly quickly and then I went travelling. Never saw her again.”
Gail searched for the right words but all she could think was that she was an idiot. She’d been stupid. She’d been stupid not to ask, stupid not to try. Erica had been there all along and while there was a definite possibility her interest didn’t lie in Gail, there was a possibility that it did.
“Well,” Gail began softly, “That wasn’t really your fault then. You can hardly call it an affair if you didn’t even know you were in one… were you pissed? I’d have slit her tires.”
Erica laughed, “I guess a little. Mostly I felt stupid.” Hah, I know the feeling, Gail thought. “I’d always kind of prided myself on being a cool, chill girl, you know? I’d be with who I wanted, when I wanted but there was never any drama. I never messed with anyone’s boyfriends. Then I meet ONE woman and she kind of took that away. I felt like I lost the right to say I was still the type of girl I’d always been. I guess women will do that to you. But,” she sighed, “It was a long time ago. I’ve healed,” She drew the word out, a kind of sarcastic way of being completely sincere.
They’d had these moments 100 times. Late night confessions, long drives of deep conversation and lengthy discussions. But this, this felt different. Where Gail usually would have had a quick anecdote, a supportive word or a corresponding tale- she had nothing. So she lifted the wine to her lips and said the only words that would come to mind – “Still woulda slit her tires.”
“Well I wish you’d been there to do it for me.”
Erica was looking away from her, up at the ceiling, her mouth in a half smile but her eyes a little sad. Gail reached a free hand over and settled it over the one that Erica had rested on her stomach. She gave a small squeeze as Erica’s eyes brightened and then reluctantly pulled away-doubt still heavy in her chest.
“Have you ever been with a woman?”
Gail froze. She nearly choked on her wine as she met Erica’s eyes, curious, brown and adoring.
“Oh, uhm,” she laughed, wiping at the corners of her mouth, “no.” She shook her head, “nope,” she said again, popping her ‘p’ to seem just a little more casual than she felt.
She passed the bottle to Erica who sat up to take a swig. “Shame” Erica breathed between sips, “It’s pretty amazing.”
“I bet.” Gail chuckled. There was that side of her coming through that she hated to acknowledge. The one that was a little unsure, a little insecure. The one that held her back from saying, “show me.”
“But I’ve thought about it,” Gail finally admitted, fighting the urge to squeeze her eyes shut.
“You have?” Erica’s head whipped around, hair brushing Gail’s shoulder.
“Well sure I have,” She said, acting as if it was the most natural thing in the world, like everyone would have the same answer, “Women are gorgeous! It’s hard not to notice. And you have enough shitty rounds in the sac with some guy who can barely fumble his way through second base and you have to wonder.”
Erica nodded, a smirk playing at her lips as she passed the bottle back to the older woman. “Gail?”
“I’ve thought about you like that.”
“Gail Klosterman… we both know you’re braver than this.”
“You have what?”
“Thought about you like that.”
The whole time, Gail stared straight ahead, white knuckles clutching the bottle as Erica’s eyes stayed on the side of her face.
“Why didn’t you ever do anything about it?”
“I-” Gail started but suddenly Erica’s hand was on the side of her face, turning her quickly and pulling her mouth against her own.
She noticed first that Erica’s lips were large, sweet and softer than anyone’s she’d ever felt with her own. She steadied the wine with her hand and moved the other to cup the side of Erica’s face as she tried to find it in herself to be calm enough to establish a rhythm against the mouth of the younger woman. She soon opened her mouth just a little to fit Erica’s bottom lip between her two and suddenly they were lost in each other. It was hard but not too quick, certain but not so confident that they were pushing one another. Eventually Gail pulled away, flushed and breathless. Before she could even say anything, Erica had put her head in her hands with a deep sigh,
“I’m sorry!” Wushed out of her quickly with the breath she’d been holding.
“What!’ Gail was almost laughing as she set the wine bottle on the nightstand, next to the candles that had been burning probably far too long.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have-“
Gail reached both her hands forward and held Erica’s face between them.
“Sugar, I’ve been married three times. Been on probably more dates than days you’ve been alive and I have never been more sure of anything, than I am of you.”
There were words that could’ve been said but instead, Gail leaned forward, ready to claim the kiss she’d only ever allowed herself to daydream of. "It’s funny," she thought to herself, "I was certain that at some point not being with Erica would kill me." But she as she felt her heart pound, her palms begin to sweat with anticipation of the evening before them, she realized that this in itself, the two of them together, could truly kill her.
“But man, what a way to go.”