Dusk has fallen, but a fire is crackling briskly in the fireplace of Tahani’s drawing room, casting its lambent light over two women, two glasses of wine, and two copies of one very bad book. As it turned out, Simone had underestimated Brent’s book; they’re not even halfway through it, and they’re already well into the second bottle. Simone was the one who had requested the wine from Janet, so it wasn’t much of a bottle, Tahani thought, but it turned out that pretty much anything alcoholic paired well with the exploits of Chip Driver. “Chapter 22: Million-Dollar Swing,” Simone proclaims.
“Oh, no. Please don’t be a sex swing,” Tahani implores her copy of the book, waving her hand vaguely at the page. Her voice is just the slightest bit slurred, but not enough for Simone to notice, she’s sure. Open drunkenness is of course far too indelicate for the goddaughter of Maggie Smith and the godmother of Prince George of Cambridge.
“Wouldn’t count on that,” Simone tells her. “All right. ‘Scarlett Pakistan sashayed through the door, a sexy smile on her face, which was there for Chip Driver alone.’” The smile or her face?”
“Oh, both, I’m sure. She hides under a blanket when he’s not there. Naturally nobody else could tolerate her beauty.”
Simone flicks a quick glance over Tahani, almost too quick for Tahani to catch. “Checks out.” Before Tahani can train her fuzzy thoughts on what that’s supposed to mean, Simone’s moving on with the book. “Her skin was…’”
“Oh my God, no! This is the sixth time he’s described me so far!”
“Sorry, Scarlett. ‘Her skin was the color of very expensive coffee with just the right amount of cream and sugar in it, plus a dash of cinnamon. Chip Driver didn’t know this, of course, because he only ever drank black coffee. Okay," Simone manages, over Tahani’s laughter, "so what I’m getting out of this is that Brent definitely drinks his coffee with equal parts coffee and cream.”
“And sugar. And cinnamon.”
“Right. ‘Her huge breasts, untamed by any bra, heaved in her passion like cantaloupes with two small animals trapped inside --”
“-- fighting for release. Her eyes were the brown of the burled walnut fixtures inside Chip’s superyacht, and they lit up when she saw Chip like… the light fixtures inside Chip’s superyacht.”
“ Walnut fixtures on a yacht? Really.” Tahani catches the droll look Simone’s giving her a second too late. “Uh. Not the point. Please continue.”
“Their exotic tilt --” they roll their eyes in concert -- “was not highlighted by makeup, because she was a natural beauty, unlike those women who lie with makeup so that you have to take them swimming on a first date. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders like a river of chocolate --”
“Like in the Willy Wonka movie?”
“‘-- like in the Willy Wonka movie.’” They’re both wheezing with laughter now, Simone almost doubled over. She touches Tahani’s knee, just for a second, and a pleasant tingling runs up Tahani’s leg. The room is spinning lightly around her now, but Simone is fixed in space. Her hair tumbles over her forehead in a profusion of corkscrews, and Tahani wonders how the light is managing to catch every single one of them.
“This,” Simone says, as their laughter finally begins to subside, “is the best time I’ve had since I got to the Good Place.”
“Mmm.” Tahani is finding that Simone is in hyper-focus now, every line and curve and hue of her body standing out sharply against the fading background of the rest of the world. The armchair she’s in has slid closer to Tahani’s couch somehow; Tahani can feel her warmth radiating out.
“Which is odd, when you think about it,” Simone continues. “This is heaven, and I’m going through my days eating frozen yogurt and being attacked by horrifying mutants of my childhood pets. John never stops talking about celebrity nip slips, Jianyu never talks about anything, Chidi’s married to his books, Brent’s married to himself --”
“Well,” Tahani says, feeling the need to sideline this line of thought as quickly as possible, “they’re not the only ones here.”
“True,” Simone says, and gives Tahani a long look. “They’re not.”
The moment spins out between them, Tahani feeling that she’s perched on the brink of something. There’s a blunt, challenging look in Simone’s eyes now, and she’s shifted forward in her chair, her knees inches from Tahani’s own. Tahani's hands are twisting nervously in her lap, and she wants to look down, but she can’t seem to break eye contact. Something sweet and wild and new to her is surging up around her like a wave. She's starting to understand what she wants to do.
Simone's breath is beginning to come more quickly now, but her gaze never falters. “Tahani,” she says, levelly intense. “Do you --”
“Wine!” Tahani warbles suddenly, leaping up from her couch. “I’m wet. I mean, I need to wet. My whistle. I’m out. Of wine.” She thinks she hears Simone heave a sigh at this, but she’s already bustling to the bar. She’s most of the way there before she remembers that the open wine bottle is sitting on the table between the two of them, but she darts behind the bar anyway, her cheeks flaming. “Just need… some ice.” She can imagine the look Simone is directing at her right now. “Warm wine, you know, never good for… drinking.”
“Okay,” Simone says, her voice making it clear that she’s giving this all the credence it deserves. “While you do that, why don’t I just go on with the book?”
“Splendid. Carry on,” Tahani says brightly, beginning to clatter around with the ice bucket.
Simone clears her throat. “‘Chip Driver looked at Scarlett, hot lust leaping hotly in his eyes. “Just wait,” he said to her, in his very sexiest voice. “I have a surprise for you.”’
“‘For me?’ Scarlett said, her smooth-as-a-single-malt-Chivas-Regal-12 voice smoky with surprise. ‘Blimey, what could it be?”
“ Blimey?” Tahani blurts, voice throbbing with outrage.
“I think he thinks Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins is the pinnacle of British class and elegance. Going on. ‘Even better,’ Chip assured her confidently, flashing his famous smile, which was famous because People magazine had voted it The World’s Best Smile. ‘You’ll love it.’ Just then, the door flew open, and a woman walked in.”
Tahani is beginning to realize that she didn’t bring her wine glass with her to the bar, and that she’s standing there now holding a melting ice cube in each hand. “Oh, no,” she protests with a slightly excessive shake of her head, dropping the cubes back into the bucket. “Not another three-way sex scene, where the two women spend two hours just worshiping his…”
“Cork,” Simone says, at the same moment that Tahani says “tallywhacker.”
“I’m sorry, what ?”
“Talllyw-- never mind. At any rate, I don’t know if I have the stomach for another of these scenes.”
“Passing over a remark about your stomach not being the most relevant body part here --”
“You didn’t pass it over. You just said it.”
“Shh, I’m reading.” An oddly determined look has crossed Simone’s face. ‘Scarlett fixed her eyes on the woman entering the room. Her skin was the color of the black coffee that Chip actually drank, but Chip didn’t see color so this was not noticed by him.” Tahani lets out a snort and buries her face in her hands, but Simone’s eyes are still trained on the page. “‘Her hair was a mass of curls that Chip longed to touch and stroke and generally feel up; he was eager to test his theory that they went “boing” when you pulled on them.’”
“Oh, no --”
“Yes. ‘The dress she was wearing hugged every inch of her body, worshiping her curves like the sun worshiping the American flag flapping in the breeze over the campus of Princeton, where Chip went to college. Here was a woman who had no need for Spanx, Chip thought, aching to run his hands over all the intoxicating swells and dips of her dizzyingly perfect body. Her gaze was sultry but intelligent as she met Chip’s eyes forthrightly, and when she spoke, her voice carried the dulcet tones of an extremely sexy Australian accent.’”
“Oh, my goodness,” Tahani says, a bit apprehensively. “It sounds like he’s -- like this character is --”
“‘“My name is Sydney,” the woman said, and her gaze shifted from Chip to Scarlett.’” Simone’s eyes are locked on Tahani’s right now, disregarding the book in her hand, and Tahani finds herself edging back toward her couch, the ice bucket forgotten on the bar. “I’ve come here for one reason.”’”
Tahani collapses a bit unsteadily onto the couch and reaches for her copy of the book, splayed open on the table. She scans the page, frowns, then flips through a few more. “Odd,” she says, “I can’t find the part you’re reading --”
“‘Just then, Sydney strode across the room to where Chip stood, looking as smug and tiresome as he always looked. “Hey man,” she said, “I finally found a good use for that pants-tent.” Chip was still staring like the dumb shirthead that he most definitely was as Sydney grabbed him, one hand on his stupid unbuttoned collar and the other on the teeny-tiny bump at his crotch, and threw him out the window.’”
“Oh,” Tahani says, a little breathlessly. “Oh, my.”
“‘Sydney turned to face Scarlett. “Now that we’ve gotten rid of that ash-hole,” she said, “I think you and I have some unfinished business.”’”
Tahani’s lips move soundlessly, but she can’t seem to give shape to any words. Her heart is beating hard enough that she’s sure it must be visible through the bodice of her dress.
“I’m going to try one more time,” Simone says, in a low voice kissing the edge of a whisper. “Tahani --”
Tahani swallows, hard. “Scarlett,” she says.
One breath. Two. “I think,” she says, and swallows again. “I think Scarlett’s more likely to be the one to do this.”
“What --” Simone begins, and Tahani leans in and stops her mouth with a kiss.
Simone and Tahani, Sydney and Scarlett, they all wind up on the floor. The fire in the fireplace blazes up briefly, then burns low. They don’t need it.
Afterwards, Simone raises her head off Tahani’s shoulder, stroking the skin of her arm lightly with a finger. “So, any complos on my performance?” she says.
“Oh!” Tahani swats at Simone with a pillow that made its way from the couch to the floor with them. Simone laughs out loud, a rich, satisfied sound. “Oh,” Tahani says again. “I mean, if you really want me to -- that is, if it would be… courteous…”
“Tahani. It was a joke. Stop before you wreck it.”
“I’m sorry,” Tahani says, and bites her lip. “I don’t really know what to… it’s just that I’ve never… been with a woman before.”
“Why?” Simone asks, the casualness of her tone belied by the intensity of her eyes on Tahani’s.
“I mean, it doesn’t seem like you’re much into men. I’ve never heard you talk about being involved with one, ever.”
“I’ve had my share!”
Tahani sighs. “Two.”
“And you never once messed around with a woman? Little boarding-school dormitory action, maybe?”
“ No, ” Tahani says, and the severity of her tone brings the ghost of her mother into the room. She sighs again, shifting around on the rug, trying to work out of her skin the itch that came on when this subject came up. “I’ve… noticed women before. But I always just -- I never felt that I could, well, deviate from the path that was set for me. I suppose I thought if I was good enough, you know, I might be able to win my parents’ approval -- if I couldn’t be Kamilah…”
“No offense,” Simone says, “but I really don’t want to hear about your sister right now.”
Tahani flings herself into another kiss.
Later, when they can talk again, the fire’s burned down to embers. “What about you?” Tahani says eventually, as they’re drifting in the aftermath, sweat lightly sheening their skin. “Have you always… I mean, when you were alive -- or maybe after, I don’t know -- have you been…”
“Mostly men, some women,” Simone says, cutting into this jumble of words. “More work than either, when I was alive. I never really fell in love, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Nor I,” Tahani says, with another sigh. “I wish now that I could have known what it was like.”
“Well,” Simone says, raising her head to look Tahani in the eyes again. “Maybe we should work on that.”
Tahani’s mouth opens, then closes. She looks over the woman entangled with her, taking her in slowly. Taking in what she’s offering.
“So,” she says eventually, “what would Scarlett and Sydney do now?”
“Go on the lam. They just murdered Chip.”
“Lucky there’s no one else in town who could possibly solve it.”
“Well, let’s not underrate Igby.”
Tahani laughs, but there’s an anxious note to it.
“You don’t know how to get from here to the next thing, do you?” Simone asks shrewdly.
“No! I don’t! I don’t have the first idea!”
Simone laughs, and Tahani feels it brighten the world. She leans in for another slow, thorough kiss, and Tahani's stress and worries drain out of her and melt into the rug.
“Tell you what,” Simone says finally, pulling out of the kiss. “Why don’t we get out from under this table --” a kiss on Tahani’s ear -- “put out what’s left of that fire --” a kiss on Tahani’s neck -- “go to the bedroom --” a kiss on Tahani’s shoulder -- “and figure it out from there.”
Tahani shivers, delight filling her to the tips of her fingers. “Right-ho,” she says, a little shakily.
Simone’s laugh dances in front of her as she begins to make her way toward the bedroom.